Possible Campus Free Expression Act could actually suppress free speech

Hannah Williams, Assistant News Editor

UNC system students will face disciplinary action for disrupting the “first amendment rights of others” on campus if the bill Lt. Gov. Dan Forest plans to propose passes.

The Campus Free Expression Act, planned to be proposed to the NC General Assembly next month, would implement a new policy regarding free speech on college campuses. Students, faculty and staff of all UNC system campuses would be forbidden from disrupting public meetings and events through protesting. Students may even face expulsion for breaking these rules, if the act passes.

“It would require that the University make a commitment to free expression, stop the ‘heckler’s veto’ in shutting down and interrupting free speech on campus, require a Committee on Free Expression that provides an annual report, and provide that the University remains neutral as a whole on the issues of the day in order to prevent the suppression of other viewpoints,” said a spokesperson for the Lt. Gov.’s office in an email.

“This will all be done while protecting the integrity of academic freedom, due process and the right of professors to keep order in their classrooms,” said the spokesperson. “Our universities must be a place where there is free trade in the marketplace of ideas, and this act will attempt to foster this.”

This planned bill comes in the wake of many reports of public political meetings that were shut down due to protesting.

Famously, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was driven off stage by protesters at an Aug. 2015 rally in Seattle and, more recently, Republican candidate Donald Trump postponed a Chicago rally earlier this month for the same reasons.

The act also comes during a time when free speech is a hot-button topic. Missouri recently passed another “Campus Free Expression Act,” but the goal of Missouri’s act was different than North Carolina’s.

Missouri’s Campus Free Expression act was designed to null the use of “free speech zones” on campus and make the entire campus essentially a “free speech zone.”

However, many worry that instead of supporting free speech as the bill’s name implies, Lt. Gov. Forest’s act will stifle free speech and healthy political discussion.

“The proposal is masked in a shroud of public safety and decency,” said Dr. Daniel Masters, UNC Wilmington’s Public and International Affairs Department Chair. “But in reality it is creating a space where people can expose themselves to one side of an issue or political discussion, and protect [themselves] from countervailing opinions. More significantly, it is a form of free speech suppression masquerading under the guise of public safety.”

Masters also commented on the potential effect of this act on the availability and ease of political debate on campuses, saying it would turn political dialogue into a “monologue.”

“It would allow people to create safe spaces for their opinions and never expose them to competing opinions. We already have this going on in cable news where certain media outlets have become the platform for particular partisan positions,” said Masters.

Others, however, are very supportive of this act. Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., helped Lt. Gov. Forest draft the bill, and he ardently backed it in discussion with the Carolina Journal at the Civitas Institute’s annual Conservative Leadership Conference on March 5.

“To my knowledge it will be the most comprehensive and ambitious effort ever undertaken to protect and defend free expression at any American college or university, public or private,” said Kurtz. He even said it could be a national model.

“The act expressly bars students, faculty members, employees or any other member of the UNC system from interfering with the freedom of others to express their views. That means no more shouting down a visiting speaker, and no more obstruction of legitimate meetings and events,” said Kurtz.

Masters, however, argues that the act will serve only to suppress the opinions of those who disagree rather than protect the opinions of those who support whatever is being discussed at any particular event.

“We have a right to speak freely, not a right to be shielded from opinions we do not like. It is the frustration of free speech,” said Masters. “We must let people say things that we may personally find very offensive or contrary to our values. Of course we are under no obligation to listen to opinions we don’t like. But those opinions should not be suppressed because we don’t like what is being said.”

Masters said he does not think the proposal will be deemed constitutional, saying that “I am very suspicious of the constitutional foundations for the act. It is entirely possible it would be struck down.”

While offering an outline of potential disciplinary procedures, including expulsion, the act instructs UNC’s Board of Governors to determine the official disciplinary policy regarding those who encroach on the first amendment rights of others on campuses.