Thursday, 13 December 2018 15:25

UNCP, Western Carolina earn high marks for free speech

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The University of North Carolina at Pembroke is one of two state colleges recently acknowledged by a civil rights organization for bringing its policies in line with the Constitution.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education last week announced that UNCP and Western Carolina University in Cullowhee had been given a “green-light” rating for having policies that protect the free-speech rights of students and faculty.

“Due to restrictive speech codes, most students around the country forfeit some First Amendment rights when they step onto campus — but not at these two universities,” said Azhar Majeed, FIRE’s vice president of policy reform. “We’re excited that WCU and UNC Pembroke leadership worked to ensure that their respective students enjoy the same free speech rights that they possess off campus. Colleges should be places of robust debate, but the speech policies maintained by most colleges in the country discourage that kind of discussion.”

FIRE rates colleges using a three-tier system based on how well — or how poorly— campus codes allow for free expression and due process.

A “green light” rating means the college rules “do not seriously imperil speech,” according to FIRE’s website. Such a rating doesn’t necessarily mean the institution supports free expression, just that FIRE isn’t aware of any policies that hinder it.

Colleges that are given a “yellow light” have policies that “restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.”

“Red-light” schools have at least one policy that “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

There is also a designation for colleges that do not have a stated commitment to protecting free speech and expression.

According to a FIRE press release, UNCP officials changed four “yellow-light” policies including free speech event policy, a computer acceptable use regulation, a sexual misconduct policy, and a student code of conduct provision.

“The university is the place where students should embrace new ideas and engage freely in dialogue to encourage the exploration of thoughts and beliefs,” said UNCP Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings. “As one of the most diverse campuses in the south, UNC-Pembroke is proud to promote inclusivity and expression among students, faculty and staff, and this rating reaffirms our longstanding commitment to the foundation of the academic experience.”

Over in the mountains, WCU revised a campus expressive activity policy “to provide robust protections for student demonstrations and expressive activity all over campus,” as well as making changes to information technology use, harassment, bullying, and sexual harassment rules.

The two colleges became the sixth and seventh, respectively, to earn a “green-light” rating this year, bringing the nationwide total up to 42. North Carolina, now with 10, has the highest number of “green-light” schools in the U.S., according to FIRE officials.

Seven of those already given the top status are part of the University of North Carolina System: Appalachian State University; East Carolina University; N.C. Central University; UNC-Chapel Hill; UNC-Charlotte; UNC-Greensboro; and UNC-Wilmington.

The remaining college, Duke University, is a private school and not bound to be in compliance the First Amendment (or other Constitutional protectections). However, FIRE does rank private schools that state a commitment to free speech.

In September, FIRE released a report in collaboration with the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal which found that 11 colleges in the Tar Heel state had improved their rating since 2010.

Appalachian, ECU, NCCU, UNCG and UNCC all improved from being “red-light” institutions to earning a “green light.”

Many of the state’s private colleges — including Pfeiffer University, the University of Mount Olive, Campbell University, Elon University and Davidson College — are still “red-light” schools.

On Tuesday, FIRE released its “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses” report which found that 89.7 percent of America’s 466 top institutions of higher learning had policies that restrict student and/or faculty speech.

FIRE was founded in 1999 by history professor Alan Charles Kors and civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate, a year following the release of their book, “The Shadow University: The Betrayal Of Liberty On America’s Campuses.”

Current FIRE President Greg Lukianoff has written several books about free speech issues on college campuses and recently co-authored the New York Times best-selling book “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure” with Jonathan Haidt.

In his 2014 broadside “Freedom From Speech,” Lukianoff lays part of the blame for the current trend in what many see as intolerance for differing opinions in the nation on what’s happening on college campuses.

“(U)nless higher education stops encouraging these inclinations and starts combating them, it will be a hard battle indeed,” he concludes. “Then again, the fight for freedom of speech has never been easy.”