Restrictions on Free Speech at UNC: What Are They and What Can Be Done



On Sept. 17, the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, about 40 students and other members of the UNC-Chapel Hill community attended a presentation on the pervasiveness of free speech limitations at UNC and universities around the country. The presentation was headlined by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization formed to defend the constitutional rights guaranteed to students. The event was organized by the Young Americans for Liberty and the UNC College Libertarians, and the presentation was given by Robert Shibley, a graduate of Duke Law School and the vice president of FIRE

Of the 400 universities surveyed by FIRE in 2011, 65 percent were categorized as “red light” schools, including UNC. This designation means that the university has egregiously unconstitutional restrictions on free speech that are regularly enforced, leaving little to no flexibility for students to fully exercise their rights.

One of the most common ways universities restrict free speech is through sexual harassment policies, and UNC is by no means an exception to this. Particularly concerning is the Examples of Sexual Harassment page on the Dean of Students website which specifically lists behaviors that can be punished by the university. Shibley said that this page is unconstitutional for two reasons.

First, it is overly broad. The page cites “Explicit or implicit propositions to engage in sexual activity,” but there is no exception for mutually consenting partners, or even people who are in a relationship. Common sense dictates that propositions between agreeing parties are not harassment; however, since no exception exists, the university can punish any student in violation of this policy, regardless of context.

Second, it is extremely vague and open to many interpretations. Another example given is “sexual gestures,” but the policy provides no clues about what this could mean. Since there is no clarification, practically any gesture could be cited as harassment if someone happened to become offended.

While sexual harassment is the most frequent site of free speech restriction at universities, another place where limitations are found is in the civility policy. At UNC this policy can be found in the “Community Living Standards” PDF under the “Rights and Responsibilities” section. The code states that residents must “avoid using the written or spoken word in a way that demeans, defames, offends, slanders or discriminates.”

Once again, the code is vague and overbroad. What constitutes “demeaning”  or “offensive” language? There is no distinction between language that is truly harassing and explicit language that is harmless, such as jokes between friends.

Under this policy a political quarrel between two residents could be reported to housing if one debater became vindictive—he could say he was “offended” by the language his opponent used.

“People say demeaning things all the time,” Shibley said. “These policies let the university determine what degree of politeness is required in interactions.”

Shibley suggested three ways students can strike back against restrictive speech codes.

1.      Organize students at the university to fight speech codes on campus. “Colleges cannot defend in public what they do to students in private,” Shibley said. “Remember, the law is on your side.”

2.      Go to outside organizations (including FIRE) and the press. “We simply expose to Americans what’s happening at colleges,” Shibley stated. “America is with you [on First Amendment rights]”.

3.      Use the courts to your advantage; FIRE has an extensive network of volunteer attorneys who are experts in the field of First Amendment restrictions. “If you win, remember that’s a win for all of campus, not just you,” Shibley said.

“These policies let the most easily offended threaten your academic career,” Shibley said. “They let [the universities] tell you what to say, and sometimes what to think.”


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