The Charlotte Observer recently ran an editorial, which seeks to intentionally misinform the public about HB527 – a bill to restore free speech on campuses in the UNC system. Let me be as clear as I possibly can: The editors who wrote this piece are not confused about what HB527 says. They are intentionally misrepresenting what it says because they oppose free speech. That’s a bold statement, which I intend to back by reprinting the worst parts of their editorial followed by my own observations:
…(T)he move by North Carolina and a handful of other states to enact laws that enhance punishment for students who disrupt speeches is a solution that would be worse than the problem. Despite what happened to (Ann) Coulter and the likes of Tom Tancredo over his immigration views, UNC Wilmington Professor Mike Adams and his conservatism, and Spike Lee, who faced death and bomb threats when he spoke in North Carolina years ago, free speech is well-protected on college campuses. The proposed law, which passed the House in Raleigh late last week, may end up undercutting some forms of free expression to purportedly enhance the protection of other forms.
The editors have managed to put three unsupported assertions into the same paragraph. They twice assert that HB527 may hurt free speech but they don’t tell us how. As bad as that is, it pales by comparison to the utterly absurd assertion that “free speech is well-protected on college campuses.” Such nonsense is on a par with saying that due process is well protected in North Korea. If the editors really believed that they would need to be hospitalized for severe intellectual hernia. But they don’t really believe that. In fact, no one believes that. The question is not whether there is a free speech crisis on our campuses. The question is whether it is a problem. The answer to that question depends upon two factors: 1) Your politics and 2) Your character.
If you are a conservative or an honest liberal you know there is a free speech problem on college campuses. Obviously, there are no conservatives or honest liberals working on the editorial board of The Charlotte Observer.
There has to be space for Coulter, despite her ugly rhetoric, which included saying Muslim countries needed to be invaded, their leaders killed and Muslims forced to convert to Christianity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There also has to be room for students and others to confront her – as long as violence and other threats are not used. Coulter has the right to make audiences uncomfortable, and those audiences have the right to make her uncomfortable, too.
That last paragraph was written as if the editors did not even read HB527. Of course, we know that they did read it – but they are just misrepresenting what it says. Furthermore, the paragraph has no relevance to the HB527 debate – unless, of course, the bill purports to provide a constitutional right of comfort for conservatives like Coulter while denying a corresponding right to those who “confront” her.
The plain language of HB527 says, “It is not the proper role of any constituent institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment, including, without limitation, ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” In other words, HB527 nullifies campus speech codes that purport to create a constitutional right to comfort – and it protects potentially offensive speech on a viewpoint neutral basis. Thus, the editors use feigned support of a specific provision of HB527 as a reason to oppose HB527. This is Soviet style journalism.
Critics of House Bill 527, also called “Restore/preserve campus free speech,” rightly note that it is based on model legislation from a conservative think tank and is overly vague, leaving too much room for abuse. Who gets to define how “disruptive” is too disruptive? Some of the country’s most important and effective social movements have involved in-your-face activists disrupting meals while sitting at segregated lunch counters, disrupting the flow of traffic, disrupting speeches on campus and elsewhere.
There are two dangerous admissions in this paragraph. 1) The editors admit that their real reason for opposing HB527 is that it came from conservatives. According to the editors, free speech is not a problem on campuses. But if there was one the editors couldn’t let conservatives solve it because that would deprive them of the ability to depict conservatives as the real enemies of free speech. 2) The editors actually equate lying down in the middle of a public road and blocking the flow of traffic with protected speech. It must hurt to be this intellectually constipated. Nothing more need be said.
There are already plenty of laws against violence and trespassing, as well as court-based remedies for those who have been wrongly silenced. (Adams sued and won when he was denied a promotion.) Colleges and universities everywhere have conduct codes that deal with unruly students.
The “Adams won and so can you” argument is simply hysterical. The editors do not mention that it took me seven years and over a million dollars in attorney fees to win in federal court. Nor do they mention that before I went to court I was already a campus free speech activist connected with the best First Amendment attorneys in America. The average student does not have my connections or my resources. In fact, none of them do.
Furthermore, by claiming that “conduct codes” are a solution (to the free speech problem they already denied) the editors show their deep ignorance of university policy. Codes such as UNCW’s “disorderly conduct” policy have been used as weapons against free speech.
Case in point: In 2015, a UNCW student faced expulsion for sending a single campus email referring to UNCW administrators as “punk asses.” While crude, this is constitutionally protected speech. Fortunately, the student contacted me asking for assistance. I called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education who came in and saved the day by defending the student and getting the charges dropped.
Obviously, the “disorderly conduct” code was there to protect university administrators from being offended. HB527 does away with that. Under the new bill, students can’t be prosecuted for offending government agents with their speech. They can only be prosecuted for disrupting the speech of other citizens simply because they were offended. This distinction is so simple that even a newspaper editor could understand it.
The solution isn’t another ill-advised law; it’s better education about why free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy and a more robust adherence not only to the letter of the First Amendment, but its spirit.
This is more intentional deception by the editors. HB527 states that, “All constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina shall include in freshman orientation programs a section describing the policies regarding free expression consistent with this Article.” In other words, HB527 educates incoming freshman about proper respect for free speech as well as the university’s refusal to tolerate those who obstruct it.
These editors are not confused. They are in bed with corrupt administrators and rioting “progressives.” They have no journalistic integrity.