The UNC Board of Governors passed a controversial new free speech policy earlier this month that could lead to punishment for those who protest at public universities.
The board unanimously passed the policy after being required by the state legislature to address the issue, despite already having free speech policies in place at constituent institutions.
Proponents of the policy, such as right-leaning advocacy groups Generation Opportunity-North Carolina and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have applauded the move, saying it protects free speech by stopping protestors from interrupting speeches and demonstrations.
Others, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, fear that the policy may chill first amendment rights.
ACLU of North Carolina policy director Sarah Gillooly fears that the policies vague language makes it difficult to determine what the board considers a punishable violation.
“The new policy includes really harsh new penalties for anyone who ‘disrupts’ campus speech, but the language does not narrowly define what type of behavior will be considered disruption,” said Gillooly.
The vague language Gillooly is referring to is the phrase “material and substantial disruption of public meetings.” But board member, and chair of the committee the policy resulted from, Steve Long says that language runs congruent to many honor code policies already in place in the UNC system.
“At some point you have to use a catch-all phrase that encompasses ways that people can disrupt a meeting, and we tried to do it consistent with what our existing policy is,” said Long.
Gillooly questions why the updated policy is necessary if universities already have free speech policies in place.
“Both the law passed by the General Assembly and the policy passed by the Board of Governors is really a solution in search of a problem,” says Gillooly. “We don’t have a free speech problem on North Carolina university campuses, and when issues arise, existing remedies were already in place.”
Still, Long assures that the policy only seeks to reinforce the right to free speech, not stifle it.
“What this policy does is to say, ‘we really support your right to protest…’ but, when it comes to disrupting a public meeting, that crosses the line and starts infringing on the rights of other people,” said Long.
The policy went into effect immediately after it passed.