Colleges to avoid, Part III

Posted: Jan 17, 2006 12:06 AM
It probably comes as no surprise that the third university in my “colleges to avoid” series is located in North Carolina. Recently, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy published a report criticizing the UNC system for its blatant in intolerance of free expression. Of the sixteen campuses in the system, only one university - Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) – was not criticized in the report.

While students in North Carolina may want to consider attending ECSU, they would do well to avoid The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). Among other things, UNCG has an Orwellian policy that outlaws “disrespect for persons.” Surely, Lucien Capone, the university attorney for UNCG, is aware that banning “disrespect” at a public university poses First Amendment problems. Nonetheless, administrators at UNCG act like “untouchables” with little fear of violating federal laws with which they disagree.

A good example of the lawlessness and arrogance of UNCG officials can be gleaned from their response to a recent protest led by students Allison Jaynes and Robert Sinnott. The protest was a peaceful, quiet, outdoor gathering of about 40 people. Located just outside the UNCG library, they didn’t cause any kind of disruption.

One could say that it was precisely the kind of protest that the framers of the First Amendment had in mind when they protected “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” One could also say that it was the kind of protest our brave soldiers fought to defend in the First and Second World Wars and even now in the War in Iraq.

When the UNCG protestors held up signs saying “UNCG Hates Free Speech” they were protesting a “free speech zone” policy that any seventeen-year-old taking high school civics would recognize as unconstitutional. Of the 200 acres on the UNCG campus, only two small areas are designated as “free speech zones” – areas designed to accommodate the expressive activities of 15,000 students.

What happened after the protest was predictable. UNCG issued “citations for disrespect” to the students which, in effect, sent the following message: UNCG students are not allowed to freely speak if they are going to say that UNCG hates free speech.

Few homeless illiterates could ever come up with such an absurd statement. Indeed, it takes a PhD to devise such logic. And such indifference to principle requires profound arrogance that could only be attained at a postmodern American university.

But I’m afraid the story only gets worse.

After UNCG lawyers said that they would re-evaluate the “speech zone” policy, the university decided to go ahead with the trials of Jaynes and Sinnott. These two students who were charged with “violation of respect” - for refusing to follow the administration’s order to move to a free speech zone - were never actually impolite or disrespectful. They were just standing in the wrong place when they expressed their love of free speech. They were standing in the middle of an American college campus.

But it gets even worse than that.

The UNCG student attorney general told Sinnott and Jaynes that neither could take any notes out of the hearing with them or even talk about the hearing with anyone else after the fact-basically imposing a complete “gag order.” In other words, they were asked to destroy any evidence of whatever constitutes – or does not constitute - “due process” at UNCG.

And, in case you have forgotten, this demand to never, ever, ever say anything about what UNCG was doing to them resulted from the students’ proclamation that “UNCG Hates Free Speech.” But we aren’t to the worst part of the story yet.

UNCG dropped the “speech zone” charges against the two students the week before the trials and, instead, substituted a new charge. The new charge was for violating a direct order by not turning over the contact information of every single person at the protest. UNCG borrowed this trick from the State of Alabama, which perfected the procedure in the 1950s. Back then, the NAACP was harassed by white racists who demanded to know the identity of all persons involved in another form of “petition(ing) the government for a redress of grievances.”

Of course, the grievance back then was racial segregation. After a fifty year struggle for civil rights, the difference between racial segregationists and college administrators is barely discernable.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court intervened in 1956 to put an end to such totalitarian methods. In so doing, they gave new strength to the First Amendment and formal recognition to the concept of “freedom of association.” But half a century later the meaning of this seminal case is still lost upon Counselor Capone and the administration of UNCG. This is the state of North Carolina where college administrators are untouchables and federal law is optional.

But, fortunately, all of this mess happened at a singularly inopportune time for the UNCG administration. The joint report by the FIRE and the Pope Center has been picked up by media outlets across the state. And, thanks to these two fine organizations, the UNCG administration has now caved in and dropped all charges against Allison Jaynes and Robert Sinnott.

The UNCG administration did not capitulate because of a love of free speech. These cowards capitulated because they hate public humiliation more than they hate the First Amendment. And that is why I would never, under any circumstances, send my child to UNCG.