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Protect academic freedom in N.C.

What’s happening to UNC Chapel Hill law professor Gene Nichol should trouble all of us in North Carolina. A campaign appears afoot to silence his criticism of Republicans and their legislative policies that Nichol deems harmful to the state and its residents.

It’s an effort that threatens the academic freedom of all faculty at state-supported schools. And it harkens back to a dark period in Tar Heel state history when a Democratic N.C. legislature tried to halt public dissent of racial segregation and other regressive social policies in the 1960s by banning speakers on state campuses thought to be communists. Communists agitators were said to be inciting racial unrest.

The infamous Speaker Ban bill was passed in 1963. The ban was widely criticized, including by UNC, as a violation of the First Amendment. Five years later a federal court invalidated it.

The effort against Nichol has been more muted. In email records obtained by the (Raleigh) News & Observer, criticism by Republican supporters of GOP Gov. Pat McCrory – including university board members, alumni and others – spurred the university to request notice when Nichol writes opinion pieces. University officials also asked him to omit his title as director of the privately funded, university-based Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity when the issue does not directly involve poverty. Last October after he criticized the governor and legislature for election law changes that this editorial board has also lambasted as partisan and racially motivated, the school asked him to include an explicit disclaimer that “he doesn’t speak for UNC.”

The requests are unusual for the university. “That doesn’t happen,” said Emeritus UNC law professor Rich Rosen of the school’s request that Nichol warn the university when he writes a column.

It is understandable officials would make such requests, given the legislative rock and hard place the university finds itself in these days. Budget director Art Pope just last month chastised university officials for submitting a funding request that asks for what they needed rather than acceding to his directive for something much less. After his tongue-lashing, officials revised their request substantially downward.

But the university’s acquiescence on the Nichol matter could wreak immeasurable harm. Free speech and academic freedom are the hallmarks of great universities. Such freedom is what attracts the high quality faculty and students. It allows great ideas to flourish. It is the spark for the creativity that infuses great university systems. In large part, it is what has made the UNC system great.

If critics can mute Nichol’s voice, what’s next? Changing or eliminating offending courses?

GOP strategist Frank Hill has said the changes aren’t even good enough. He wrote to several UNC Chapel Hill trustees that regardless of disclaimers Nichol always speaks for the university because of his position: “This guy is going to be a major pain in the tookus for those of you who really love UNC and want to see more cooperation with the people who are probably going to be in majority control of the legislature of the next decade...”

The implication is clear. The university should not bow to such fear-mongering and intimidation. And all those “who really love UNC” should tell state policymakers involved in these shameful tactics to back off.

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