Author’s Note: My upcoming debate with Nadine Strossen will begin at 7 p.m. (Pacific Standard Time) on January 21st, 2016. It will be held in Austin Auditorium in LaSells Stewart Center on the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. The Topic will be Roe v. Wade. Admission is free and open to the public. The live stream can be accessed here: https://plus.google.com/events/c4qg9k85cv9aljsns1mdk2bffjk?hl=en
Dear Chancellor Sartarelli (and UNCW Board of Trustees):
In addition to wishing you a happy new year I would like to apologize for writing this long letter without having met you in person. I hope to get a chance to do so soon. Like so many others, I am happy you have chosen to accept the position as chancellor of our university. Numerous sound decisions in the first few months of your administration have bolstered our confidence in your ability to lead the university in a positive direction.
As you may have already heard, some good news on the issue of free speech recently came out of The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH). The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) awarded UNC-CH a green light, which is its highest rating for policies concerning free expression. This marks the first time in my memory that one of UNC’s seventeen campuses has received a green light rating.
You may already be familiar with the work of FIRE in general and its campus rating system in particular. Regardless, I would like to share my views about why their work is so important and how they can help us move forward here at UNC-Wilmington.
A right-leaning libertarian named Alan Kors and a left-leaning libertarian named Harvey Silverglate established FIRE about 15 years ago. Alan is a highly respected Ivy League historian who teaches at Penn. Harvey is a highly respected defense attorney who once taught at Harvard. Greg Lukianoff, a political liberal, is presently the president and CEO of FIRE. Robert Shibley, a political conservative, is presently the executive director of FIRE. The ideological diversity of its leadership shows that FIRE is an organization dedicated to defending all points of view.
FIRE developed its unique red/yellow/green light free speech rating system just over a decade ago. They defined red light colleges and universities as those institutions with at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts free speech. Yellow light colleges and universities are those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application. Green light colleges and universities are those with policies that do not seriously imperil speech.
Presently, our university has a yellow light rating. It has been some time since FIRE has evaluated our school and I am concerned that the yellow light rating no longer provides an accurate assessment of the climate for free speech at UNC-Wilmington. In fact, I am concerned that if we don’t act affirmatively we will eventually be given a red light rating for having at least one policy that runs afoul of the First Amendment.
In the past few years, students at UNC-Wilmington have been prosecuted under two policies – the “disorderly conduct” policy and the Seahawk Respect Compact – for offering criticism of the administration, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment. In your first few weeks as chancellor, your administration was provided with evidence of one such prosecution. You acted quickly to overturn the charges against the student and promised to review the policy. In that case it was “disorderly conduct.”
Your prompt and professional handling of that case has caused me to come to you with a specific proposal. It involves three simple steps:
1. Call FIRE in for an assessment of our student speech and conduct policies. Rather than risk a legal challenge to a speech or conduct prosecution that has violated a student’s First Amendment rights we should be proactive. We should ask FIRE to identify all UNCW policies that clearly and substantially threaten free speech. Furthermore, we should ask FIRE to identify any ambiguous policies that invite abuses of discretion. It would be very easy to arrange such an audit given that FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley’s office is located near Raleigh and only about two hours from our campus.
2. With the help of FIRE rewrite all existing student speech and conduct codes that threaten free speech or invite administrative abuses of discretion. In short, I am asking that we actively seek a green light rating by eliminating all potentially problematic policies. With the help of FIRE and with the recent classification of UNC-CH as a green light university we have all of the tools we need to achieve this goal. First, we have FIRE attorneys located here in North Carolina who could help guide us through the process. Second, we have written policies at UNC-CH that have succeeded in earning a green light rating and which can be duplicated here at UNCW.
3. After achieving a green light rating we should actively promote ourselves as one of America’s leading free speech universities. FIRE gives a green light rating to only 22 colleges and universities in America. If we become the 23rd we can actively use this as a selling point for our university.
Recent controversies at Yale and Mizzou have demonstrated that there is a constitutional crisis in higher education in America. Wrong-headed speech and conduct policies have created this crisis. They have also changed the campus culture for the worse.
Fortunately, we are now seeing a backlash. The public is crying out for alternatives to the current victim-manufacturing campus climate. They are looking for a better place to send their children. They seek a place where their investment will not be used to fund an assault on traditional American values of respect for divergent opinions and reverence for the free and open marketplace of ideas.
We aren't obligated to protect the feelings of the current generation. We are obligated to preserve the constitution for future generations. I hope that you and the Board of Trustees will consider leading the way by contacting FIRE and acting on these recommendations in the near future.
Working together, we can soar above the competition by daring to be different in an age of rigid intellectual conformity. We can begin that quest by flashing a green light to those who would dare to speak the truth boldly in an age where fear trumps commitment to reasoned discourse.
I thank you for your time and consideration. Above all, I look forward to working with you in the future.