Breaking down the North Carolina Free Speech Bill

Lawmakers in the North Carolina legislature have introduced landmark legislation in the fight to defend free speech on college campuses. The Restore Campus Free Speech Act would require the state’s public colleges and universities to adopt policies that prioritize First Amendment rights and repeal unconstitutional free speech codes.

As the fight over free speech on campuses intensifies, it’s important for lawmakers to step in and ensure the First Amendment rights of students, faculty, and invited speakers are protected. Here’s why the Restore Campus Free Speech act is good for North Carolina’s public universities.

The State of Free Speech Protection in NC

Free speech rights protection is seriously needed in North Carolina. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that monitors individual rights on campuses, has regularly highlighted the dismal state of free speech in the state.

“With the exception of Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), there are no schools in North Carolina that have earned FIRE’s “green light” rating, meaning that a school’s written policies do not seriously imperil free speech. In fact, several institutions boast embarrassing “red light” ratings, meaning that they maintain at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

Here’s just a few examples of free speech violation by North Carolina public universities:

• In 2016, a judge ordered NC State University to stop enforcing its policy requiring students to get a permit to pass out fliers on campus after a student organization sued. The policy even banned “oral speech to a passersby” without getting a permission slip from school administrators. NC State tried to defend the rule in front of a federal judge, but in the end had to change its unconstitutional policy and pay $72,500 to settle the lawsuit.

• In 2015, NC State encouraged students to cover up messages painted in the ironically-named “Free Expression Tunnel” that they found to be “hate speech or offensive language.” The school even handed out stencils to help students censor their classmates.

• In 2015, three campus police officers showed up at a professor’s door to demand she take down a protest sign she had placed in her window.

• In 2011, NC State tried to force students living on campus to sign a “Civility Statement” that prohibits students from using speech that is “disrespectful,” “intolerant,” or “hurtful,” severely limiting students’ First Amendment rights to free expression.

So What Does the Restore Campus Free Speech Act Do?

The bill reaffirms North Carolina’s commitment to the fundamental right everyone has to free speech by:

• Creating a policy of free expression that protects the free speech rights of anyone lawfully on campus, including students and outside speakers invited by student groups or faculty. The policy would remove restrictive “free speech codes” and allow anyone whose free speech rights have been violated to sue the school.

• Providing disciplinary action for people who interfere with the free speech or expression rights of others, like the protestors who shut down events hosted by students or faculty.

• Establishing a “Committee on Free Expression” that monitors free speech rights violations.

• Including a section in Freshman Orientation that highlights the school’s commitment to free speech and outlines their rights to free expression.

• Expanding the duties of the campus diversity office to include protecting free speech rights.

It’s disappointing North Carolina lawmakers have to introduce legislation protecting rights already guaranteed by the Constitution. But the news coming from public universities in North Carolina and around the country show why a recommitment to free speech and expression rights is urgently needed.

Freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental rights in a free society. Lawmakers nationwide should follow the lead of those standing up for individual rights, like these North Carolina legislators and the schools that have adopted the “Chicago Principles,” and protect free speech rights for students.

Author Generation Opportunity

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