Last year during a commencement ceremony at Howard University, former president Barack Obama told graduates: “Don’t try to shut folks out, no matter how much you might disagree with them…. Listen, engage, if the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them, teach them, beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”
Unfortunately, on college campuses across the country, the opposite is happening.
Colleges and universities in North Carolina are no exception.
In recent years, free speech has come under attack at UNC-Wilmington and North Carolina State University where administrators were requiring student groups to receive permission before disseminating flyers on college campuses. And in another instance, law enforcement officials forced a University of North Carolina professor, on a campus that is generally known to support free speech, to remove a poster from her window. Administrators eventually apologized for their actions, but not before first sending a chilling warning to all on campus.
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The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that studies free speech and freedom of association on college campuses, examined 27 North Carolina colleges and universities and found 21 of them maintain policies that restrict free speech. In fact, of the 17 schools in the UNC system, only UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, and UNC-Greensboro have policies that do “not pose a serious threat to free speech.”
But now, North Carolina has the opportunity to become a leader in academic freedom and restore free speech on more of our college campuses. A bill to restore and preserve free speech on the University of North Carolina campuses recently passed the North Carolina House and Senate and has been sent to the governor’s desk. If Governor Cooper signs it, the state university system will be required to support policies that encourage a greater diversity of viewpoints, including ending the practice of disinviting controversial speakers on campus.
It’s unfortunate that it has come to this, but it’s clear that our academic institutions have not properly safeguarded students’ constitutionally protected rights. For example, campus authorities have demanded weeks of advance notice before students could go out on the quad and hand out material. Furthermore, they insist on reviewing and approving any printed materials students planned to hand out. Additionally, students detailed harassment they experienced and noted their fear of retaliation from professors if they openly share their views and express their opinions.
This is appalling because a university that stifles free speech and diversity of thought is not an institution of higher learning.
If this legislation becomes law, however, our state universities will be closer to the goal of being marketplaces of ideas where creativity and innovation can flourish. Students will be asked to think critically to defend their viewpoints. And just as important, students will learn to appreciate the value of civil disagreement and civil discourse.
Of course, not all college campuses are limiting the free-flow of ideas and viewpoints. Recently, one top administrator at the University of Chicago said: “We believe that the best education we can provide students to prepare them for the world is to hear diverse points of view even if they feel uncomfortable.”
The time has come to turn the tide and re-establish one of the most fundamental rights on our college campuses in the Tar Heel State. Gov. Cooper has a chance to do just that by signing legislation affirming free speech on college campuses.
Gravely is the N.C. spokesperson for Generation Opportunity.