The News & Observer has reported that a UNC professor and columnist for the paper must add a disclaimer to his columns that he “doesn’t speak for UNC,” after one of his pieces angered allies of North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.
And retired UNC Law Professor Richard Rosen is not happy about how recent events unfolded in the matter of Professor Gene Nichol, an unabashed liberal who writes columns for The News & Observer.
“It is important that it get out in the open that it’s happening,” says Rosen. “I think it’s important that the university remain unbending toward the political pressure. And it’s important that the people of North Carolina tell those in power that they need to accept criticism when it comes and not try to use the power of the purse or any other power to shut people up.”
Nichol is a distinguished professor at UNC’s School of Law. Most of his pieces for the N&O are installments of a series on poverty called “Seeing the Invisible.”
But one column he wrote for the October 15 edition of the N&O wasn’t written for that series. The piece was inspired by the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to sue the state of North Carolina regarding new election laws that the Department called racially discriminatory.
Nichols wrote that McCrory was “a 21st century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus.”
Lester Maddox, George Wallace and Orval Faubus were all segregationist governors in the South of the 1960s.
Nichol’s comparison angered UNC Board of Governors member Ed McMahan, a McCroy ally. As reported in the April 12 News & Observer, McMahan wrote an email to Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans that included these words:
“Gene Nichols (sic) is at it again! Pat called from Mississippi this morning.”
That was an apparent reference to McCrory, who was in Biloxi that day for a Southern States Energy Board meeting. McMahan has not returned calls from WCHL for comment.
Rosen says he’s surprised at the idea that the governor would call a member of the UNC Board of Governors to gripe about an unfavorable newspaper column.
“Part of going into the public arena is understanding you’re going to be the subject of discussion,” says Rosen. “I think it’s kind of astonishing that the governor would be upset enough to call from Mississippi because he gets criticized.”
The Pressure Mounts
According to the N&O, what happened next is that Hans contacted UNC System President Tom Ross and his Chief of Staff Kevin FitzGerald.
Conservative think tank The Civitas Institute filed a public records request for six weeks of Nichol’s emails, calendar entries, text messages, and other information pertaining to his communications at UNC.
Rosen says it was just an intimidation tactic.
“They asked for his records because he spoke out against the governor and the legislature,” says Rosen. “I think that’s clear. They did not have any other reason. I think it’s all part of a concerted effort to keep him quiet.”
The mounting pressure forced Nichol and the university to come to an understanding. The News & Observer obtained email records that reveal that Nichol must now give his employers two days of notice before one of his columns appears.
If the column is not about poverty, he must leave out his title as director of the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, based at UNC.
And he must add the disclaimer that his views do not represent the university.
Nichol’s only public comment about the decision was in an email to the News & Observer, in which he praised Dean Jack Boger of the UNC School of Law for his support. WCHL reached out to Nichol for comment on Tuesday, and he has not yet responded.
Boger told WCHL that, despite continued efforts by some of his adversaries, Nichol isn’t going anywhere, and that he will continue to speak his mind publicly, with UNC’s blessing.
“We don’t live in a society in which people can decide they don’t like what a professor says or believes in a university, and simply take them out of it,” he says. “That’s why we have tenure. That’s why we have very strong protection for academic freedom.”
Boger avoids characterizing the motives behind the Civitas Institute’s successful request for more then a thousand pages of Nichol’s communications, but he had this to say:
“The open records act permits citizens and institutions to request such records without clarifying what their motives are,” says Boger. “I think some within the university — I’m probably one of them – think there ought to be some sort of statutory restraint placed on that capacity. You could bring a university to its knees by simply asking every one of its 1,200 faculty members to ‘give me your last six weeks of emails,’ and have it all sorted through.”