Home Opinion OUR OPINION: Two UNC schools earn applause for free speech stand

OUR OPINION: Two UNC schools earn applause for free speech stand

Dave DiFilippo cartoon first published in the Wilson Times in April 2017

In an age where halls of higher learning play host to political correctness on steroids, it’s nice to see the University of North Carolina System leading the way to protect freedom of speech.

Two state colleges, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, recently earned the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s green-light designation for their commitments to overturning restrictive policies, the so-called “speech codes.”

FIRE ranks colleges and their rulebooks with a three-color system based on how well or how poorly they protect student and faculty First Amendment rights.

A red-light institution “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” which are blatant constitutional violations, according to FIRE’s website. 

Schools that receive a yellow light have policies that could be vague enough to give rise to viewpoint-based discrimination or selective enforcement. 

A green light, the best rating, “means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.”

Although universities were once billed as an intellectual marketplace for the free exchange of ideas, certain viewpoints are coming under fire, especially from the political left. And it’s been going on for more than 30 years.

Before founding FIRE in 1999, history professor Alan Charles Kors and Boston civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate wrote a book, “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses,” highlighting a variety of violations from across the nation.

Administrators who enact speech codes and trustees who fail to rebuff censorious impulses bear the blame, but there’s no secret cabal of college presidents conspiring to restrict campus discourse. Increasingly, the call for limiting free expression comes from the students themselves — those raised by helicopter parents who sought to right every wrong and insulate them from all difficulty. 

In their bestselling book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt explain that safe spaces, trigger warnings and the equating of hateful speech with physical violence stem from a safety culture in which young people perceive the condition of being offended as a threat to their mental health and emotional stability. 


That’s bunkum, of course — it’s basic psychological truth that avoidance tends to increase anxiety while exposure can reduce it. Muffling every offensive utterance in college will make young people more uptight and less prepared to confront the opposing viewpoints they’ll encounter in the real world.  

Haidt’s solution is to replace campus safety culture with a culture of anti-fragility where it’s understood that enduring and countering hostile views makes us stronger, not weaker. UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina are in rare company — only 40 other U.S. colleges and universities can claim FIRE’s free speech-friendly status. North Carolina is home to 10 of the 42 green-light schools, more than any other state in the nation.

Public colleges in the Tar Heel State have a dual incentive — a carrot and a stick — to reform repressive speech codes. Not only do free-expression converts earn positive publicity, but last year’s Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech Act championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest imposes penalties for college rules found to be out of step with the First Amendment. 

The state law applies only to UNC System institutions. While private colleges aren’t government actors and can restrict student and faculty speech, those that guarantee academic freedom and open discourse in their handbooks can be sued for breach of contract if they fail to keep their promises. 

Speech codes at UNC Pembroke and Western should have never been written, of course, but we won’t rain on this green-light parade by offering muted praise. Administrators at both universities deserve a sincere round of applause.

It could have taken a state legislative crackdown or costly federal lawsuit to force reform. Instead, these institutions chose voluntarily to do the right thing and live up to their free-speech responsibilities. 

Now it’s time for our state’s two red-light schools (Davidson College and Wake Forest University, which are both private) and the yellow light-rated UNC School of the Arts, UNC Asheville, N.C. State, N.C. A&T, Fayetteville State and Elizabeth City State to “go green” by eliminating their speech codes. 

We hope and expect North Carolina will become the first state where all public colleges promote open discourse and earn FIRE’s green-light nod for being devoid of repressive rules. Let the students speak.

Editor’s Note: Today’s editorial was written jointly by The Wilson Times and the Richmond Observer. It appears simultaneously in the Times and on RichmondObserver.com.

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