College students may not understand free speech, but at the University of North Carolina, professors seem plenty willing to teach them.
The UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council voted 28-4 last Friday to adopt the “Chicago Principles,” a document that expresses support for freedom of expression and opposition to censorship. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has called on all American colleges, public and private, to endorse the University of Chicago’s free speech policy statement.
This encouraging step comes on the heels of a startling Knight Foundation survey showing that large numbers of undergrads prefer mandatory political correctness to the sometimes rough and tumble world of vigorous debate in the marketplace of ideas.
Sixty-four percent of students say the First Amendment shouldn’t protect hate speech. While we join them in condemning racism and bigotry, we note that censorship isn’t the proper remedy. Misguided views can only be defeated when they’re debated, debunked and defanged. Americans confront prejudice rather than shrinking away from it.
Since “hate speech” is not a defined category of expression in U.S. jurisprudence, it’s easy to misapply the label and use it to declare anything a particular person or group finds offensive to be out of bounds. Increasingly, students use “hate speech” cries as a cudgel to silence others and as justification to shout down speakers or stage riots to disrupt their events.
Nearly four in 10 students believe it’s sometimes OK to drown out speakers they find disagreeable, which it is not. The First Amendment protects peaceful protest, but there’s no such thing as a constitutional license for censorship by crowd.
It’s this precise misunderstanding that led some liberals to criticize North Carolina’s campus free speech law passed in 2017. The state statute requires universities to punish those who shout down speakers. Critics feared protesters’ rights could be violated. The case law is clear — demonstrators can picket to their hearts’ content and “fleeting boos” are fine, but yelling over a speaker to prevent him from being heard is a violation of free speech, not a legitimate exercise of it.
Ten percent of students say it’s sometimes acceptable to prevent someone from speaking by the use of violence or physical force. That grim statistic is reflected in the Antifa riots that caused the cancellation of conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopolous’ speech at the University of California-Berkeley in February 2017.
Students aren’t learning civics in high school and arrive on college campuses without a good grasp of the First Amendment and the importance of open debate in a free society. When they’re met by radical professors who conflate controversial speech with physical violence and spineless administrators who capitulate to demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings, universities can have a free speech crisis on their hands.
Fortunately, that isn’t the case at the University of North Carolina.
Friday’s vote didn’t grant students free speech rights; the First Amendment already does that. It didn’t require professors and administrators to respect those rights; the 2017 state law accomplishes that. Since faculty doesn’t set campus rules, the Chicago Principles are non-binding. Yet there’s still something profound about professors taking a public stand for free expression in this day and age.
The University of Chicago statement can have the force of policy when college boards of trustees vote to adopt it, and we encourage North Carolina’s private institutions of higher learning, which are not bound by the First Amendment or the state’s campus free speech law, to take that voluntary step.
UNC faculty members drafted their own preamble and conclusion to the Chicago Principles resolution. The university, they wrote, is “reaffirming a commitment to full and open inquiry, robust debate and civil discourse” and vows to “affirm the intellectual rigor and open-mindedness that our community may bring to any forum where difficult, challenging and even disturbing ideas are presented.”
“At Carolina, we have long known that light and liberty are the essential tools that allow problems to be seen, ideas to be tested and solutions to be found,” the statement reads. “At a moment of deep societal division and flux, we embrace these truths once again.”
Light and liberty — those should be guiding principles for all North Carolina colleges. More must follow in UNC’s footsteps and adopt the Chicago Principles without delay.
— The Wilson Times