From East Carolina University’s ban on posters and fliers with language “offensive to a member of or a visitor to the university community” to Appalachian State barring students from “intentionally embarrassing another individual,” our public colleges are littered with ludicrous school rules that would be laughed out of court.
Until and unless undergrads file costly federal lawsuits to restore sanity to their student handbooks, however, administrators can use those rules to punish grown adults for exercising their First Amendment rights — and there’s nothing funny about that.
Enter Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who has been working to raise awareness about colleges’ unlawful policies and pushing for legislation to bring the University of North Carolina system into constitutional compliance.
The long-awaited bills were filed last week, with state Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, introducing the measure in the House and Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, doing the honors in the chamber where Forest serves as ceremonial president and holds a tie-breaking vote.
House Bill 527 and Senate Bill 507 both seek to require University of North Carolina System institutions to uphold their responsibilities under the First Amendment. The legislation would override campus speech codes, guarantee academic freedom, ensure due process in disciplinary cases involving expressive conduct, require free-speech education during freshman orientation and establish a Committee on Free Expression to meet regularly and report to the UNC Board of Governors.
“It is not the proper role of any constituent institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment,” the bills state, “including, without limitation, ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.”
Folks who aren’t comfortable with vigorous debate and unrestrained student expression should realize that Forest’s legislation merely holds UNC campuses accountable for following existing federal law. As arms of the government, public colleges and universities are bound to respect First Amendment rights.
“(T)he precedents of this court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large,” Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 Healy v. James decision.
The Forest-backed bills would make it a whole lot less likely that college bureaucrats would dare to interfere with student speech rights. If they do, administrators could be on the hot seat in state courts. The attorney general or students whose rights have been violated could sue, and recalcitrant colleges would be fined a minimum of $1,000 and be required to cover plaintiffs’ attorney fees.
It’s time the General Assembly stopped college censorship in its tracks. We call on Wilson County’s legislative delegation to support these bills and the full House and Senate to hold floor votes as soon as possible to restore and protect free-speech rights on University of North Carolina campuses.
If signed into law, either bill would become effective on June 30. That’s just four days ahead of Independence Day, a fitting holiday to celebrate the Bill of Rights and the freedoms it guarantees to all Americans — college students included.