Back in January of 2016, I sent a letter to UNC-Wilmington President Jose Sartarelli, which was copied to all 16 members of the Board of Trustees. I later published the same letter on Townhall.com. In my letter, which you can read here, I accused the university of having at least two policies that clearly violated the First Amendment. I then asked the administration to work with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to do an audit of our policies and then revise them towards the goal of attaining a coveted green light rating from FIRE. For those not familiar with the FIRE rating system, a green light simply signifies that a school has no policies that threaten free speech.
It should go without saying that when I sent my letter to the administration there was no guarantee they would respond. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised when UNCW Board of Trustee Dennis Burgard responded within just a few hours. Burgard, who is a registered Republican, urged the administration to take my letter seriously and contact FIRE for an audit of our policies. Without his support, my letter would have gone nowhere.
Within the following weeks and months a constructive dialogue took place between FIRE and UNCW’s Office of General Counsel. During that dialogue, it was revealed that I had misstated the number of unconstitutional policies at my university. There were more than just a couple. There were nine. Working together with FIRE, my university abolished eight of them before the beginning of the fall semester of 2016.
Later on, negotiations apparently stalled. During an unexpected yet cordial encounter with UNCW’s lead counsel I was told that the exchange with FIRE had been “enjoyable” but that there were “disagreements.” Arguably, to the extent that UNCW had “disagreements” with FIRE, the university should have deferred to their judgment. After all, FIRE is the leading defender of campus free speech in America. In contrast, UNCW lost a costly federal First Amendment case just two years before they agreed to the audit by FIRE. I was simply trying to save the university from further embarrassment. Unfortunately, there was no progress for the better part of a year until another Republican got involved.
Enter Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest.
In the fall of 2016, Forest’s office decided to advocate for a modified version of a model free speech bill proposed by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. The bill was not perfect but it had many elements essential to free speech reform in the UNC system. For example, it virtually eliminated speech zones and speech codes. It also prevented universities from adopting official positions on controversial issues and then forcing faculty and students to espouse those positions. It also made universities educate students on free speech principles during freshman orientation. For students who wished to ignore those principles and disrupt speech, new sanctions were created – but they were accompanied by guarantees of due process for accused disrupters.
I was pleased to work with the bill’s sponsor, Representative Chris Millis, as modifications were made to the Goldwater proposal in order to address concerns raised by UNC administrators. As usual, the administration misled us and suggested they would support the bill under the condition that we made a few modifications. When they were made, the administration still opposed the bill.
But there was no denying the inevitable. When the bill got to the higher education committee all the GOP had to do was show up and outvote the Democrat opponents. The same was true for the vote in the House and in the Senate. Predictably, all of the opposition to the free speech bill came from Democrats.
Keep in mind that two prominent features of the bill were 1) That it banned speech codes that regulate the content of speech, and 2) That it banned speech zones that regulate the location of speech. Unbelievably, Democrat Representative Verla Insko was quoted as saying “My main objection is it's regulating free speech.” Thus, Democrats characterized our deregulations as regulations in order to preserve campus censorship.
When the bill finally hit Governor Roy Cooper’s desk, he knew he could not sign it. To come out in favor of free speech would anger his leftist constituents and compromise his re-election. They would never forgive him for helping to break the stranglehold on the marketplace of ideas in the UNC system. Without campus censorship and young uninformed voters the Democratic Party would cease to exist. But Cooper could not officially vote against free speech, either. So he just let the bill become law.
Just one day before HB527 became the first law based on the Goldwater model, my university was given a green light by FIRE. It was the seventh campus in the UNC system to become a green light school. That makes North Carolina the state with the most green light colleges and universities - eight overall and seven in the UNC system.
Note that before Dan Forest got to work on what would become HB527, there was only one school in the UNC system with a green light. In the roughly six months that it took to move the bill through the House and the Senate and on to Roy Cooper’s desk six UNC schools got a green light.
After holding on to unconstitutional speech code and speech zone policies for a quarter of a century, these UNC schools suddenly gained an appreciation for free speech, right? Better think again. These schools, including UNCW, which got the green light 24 hours before HB527 became law, simply sensed the inevitable. They knew their policies were about to be struck down by law so they abandoned them at the last minute in a hypocritical effort to steal political credit from the GOP.
But let the record reflect that the DNC system, which owns the UNC system, was the enemy of free speech throughout the entire process. Remember that when they call begging for donations.