Protesting North Carolina's Newest Speaker Ban

Co-authored by Izaak Earnhardt

In the South, a region with great nostalgia for an imagined past, history has an even more pronounced tendency towards repetition.

In 1963, North Carolina's legislature passed what has since become known as the Speaker Ban Law, designed to prohibit communists and others from speaking at the University of North Carolina. Though many understood this law as an obvious infringement on academic freedom and free speech, it took federal courts five years to invalidate the measure.

At the most recent UNC Board of Governors' meeting, after intentionally retreating to a room too small to accommodate members of the public, the Board voted unanimously to discontinue the work of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill, the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University and the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University, and adopted restrictive rules governing "advocacy" by University employees.

These decisions are meant to suppress criticism of the recent rightward tilt in North Carolina politics, an ideological shift that has produced a University governing board willing to enact a modern-era Speaker Ban Law. The Board's brazen effort to close the Poverty Center and restrict political speech by UNC system employees is fueled by a wish to silence critics like Gene Nichol, who has called out the state's new ruling class for its inattention to poverty. It is meant to intimidate faculty members like Ted Shaw, whose Center for Civil Rights has filed numerous lawsuits to stop abuses by state authorities.

In making this decision, as in its unjustified firing of UNC System President Tom Ross, the Board has conducted its ostensibly public business with little transparency and almost no opportunity for public input.

The decision to banish the Poverty Center and restrict political advocacy attracted no dissent within the Board. In most places around the world, the only regimes that can obtain one hundred percent of the vote are those that actively silence opposition. The way that the Board of Governors runs its meetings presents a microcosmic example of the way that the ideological extremists in the North Carolina legislature who appointed them would like to see the state run -- free in market and free of dissent.

By eliminating the Poverty Center, the Board is suggesting that poverty is off-limits as an academic pursuit. The legendary UNC President Bill Friday saw it differently, asking students to remember their duty to the state and all of its people. "A million poor North Carolinas pay taxes to subsidize your education," he said, on more than one occasion. "What are you doing to do to pay them back?"

Friday's words echo as powerfully today as they did fifty years ago, which is why students and faculty stand united in opposition to the Board of Governor's assault on the Poverty Center.

Leading up to this vote, students have tried to voice our concerns about these decisions by attending board meetings, have met with members of the Board, have peacefully demonstrated at working group meetings, and have delivered over 2,500 signatures in support of the centers under review.

UNC Faculty have also been vocal, with close to 300 signing fiery letters of opposition in the Washington Post, News & Observer, Daily Tar Heel, and Chronicle of Higher Education. Numerous faculty organizations, including the American Association of University Professors and the UNC Faculty Council have passed resolutions to condemn the Board's proposals.

All of these efforts seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

That is why we disrupted the Board's meeting by reading the system's mission statement out loud. We wanted to remind the Board whom they are supposed to serve and to show that students, faculty and community members are tired of these attacks on higher education. Instead of listening, the Board had these people removed from the meeting, arresting a UNC Geography professor in the process. When the Board moved the meeting to a room too small to accommodate the public, students from UNC Charlotte, N.C. Central University, UNC Greensboro, N.C. A&T, and UNC Chapel Hill chanted "Let us in!" to protest our exclusion from the process. This move and the Board's subsequent vote were inconsistent with North Carolina's public meetings law, and we look forward to pursuing that claim in court.

But just as the "Moral Monday" movement in our state has kept pressure on the legislature, even in the face of sustained indifference from elected leader, so will we continue to hold the Board of Governors accountable.

We -- the students, faculty, staff, and people of North Carolina -- will not shrink from the challenge now before us. Political leaders who think deference is their due will not intimidate us. History does repeat itself, and this latest speaker ban will fall with as much ignominy as the last.

Emilio and Izaak are students at UNC - Chapel Hill and members of the UNC-CH Board of Governors Democracy Coalition.