Our Opinion: Speaker ban law paved path for campus censors

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Microphones muted. Lecture halls dimmed. Debate squelched.

That’s the outcome at far too many American colleges when faculty members or student groups bring a controversial speaker to campus. Two phenomena — the disinvitation and the heckler’s veto — are suppressing the free exchange of ideas and sowing the seeds of censorship in higher education.

Disinvitations occur when college administrators either rescind their own overtures or cancel those of independent student organizations. The heckler’s veto rears its ugly head when protesters silence a speaker by shouting him down or rioting to disrupt an event.

Both are troubling threats to free speech at universities whose very mission is to expose students to new ideas and challenge them to confront uncomfortable perspectives.

Polarizing former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ Feb. 1 speech at the University of California Berkeley was canceled in the wake of a riot that made international headlines. Masked thugs hurled Molotov cocktails and shot fireworks at campus buildings, causing more than $100,000 in damage.

The fracas gave Berkeley, home of the campus free-speech movement in the 1960s, a black eye that won’t soon heal. Violence and mortal danger in the name of preventing young people from hearing words that might hurt their fragile feelings.

North Carolina has its own checkered history. At the height of the Red Scare, the General Assembly passed a speaker ban barring known or suspected Communists and anyone considered “subversive” from appearing at UNC campuses in June 1963.

About two years later, lawmakers convened a study commission tasked with reviewing the law and suggesting revisions. Elizabeth Swindell, then editor and publisher of The Wilson Times, served on the panel and worked to soften the speaker ban. In 1968, a federal court threw out the law in its entirety.

Though we no longer have a speaker ban on the books, UNC System administrators can steamroll student groups who wish to invite controversial guests or bow to pressure from protesters who won’t tolerate unpopular views.

The Restore and Preserve Campus Free Speech Act would change that.

A bill championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest seeks to ensure that our taxpayer-funded university campuses will remain “open to any speaker whom students, student groups or members of the faculty have invited” and that all public areas on campus are traditional public forums, “open on the same terms to any speaker.”

Anyone — dean, professor or student — who tries to silence discussion would be disciplined.

A half-century ago, the Times stood up for the values of free speech and worked to blunt the infamous speaker ban’s sting. Fifty-two years later, we’re proud to follow Swindell’s footsteps in making the same stand.

Allowing risk-averse college bureaucrats to cancel guest appearances isn’t much better than a state law closing campuses to controversy.

North Carolinians must demand the universities their tax dollars support uphold basic First Amendment principles. Passing the lieutenant governor’s signature free-speech bill would ensure they do.