North Carolina enacts Restore Campus Free Speech Act

Stanley Kurtz reports that the state of North Carolina has enacted the Restore Campus Free Speech Act. This is the first comprehensive campus free-speech legislation to be based on the Goldwater Institute proposal that Stanley helped develop.

The final version of the Act passed the North Carolina House by a margin of 80 to 31. Ten Democrats, about a quarter of those present, voted for the bill. The final version passed the Senate by a margin of 34 to 11 along strict party lines.

Roy Cooper, the state’s Democratic governor, took no action on the bill. Thus, it has become law.

The legislation does the following:

It ensures that University of North Carolina policy will strongly affirm the importance of free expression.

It prevents administrators from disinviting speakers whom members of the campus community wish to hear from.

It establishes a system of disciplinary sanctions for students and anyone else who interferes with the free-speech rights of others, and ensures that students will be informed of those sanctions at freshman orientation.

It reaffirms the principle that universities, at the official institutional level, ought to remain neutral on issues of public controversy to encourage the widest possible range of opinion and dialogue within the university itself.

And it authorizes a special committee created by the Board of Regents to issue a yearly report to the public, the regents, the governor, and the legislature on the administrative handling of free-speech issues.

The University of North Carolina was able, through its lobbying, to water down the bill in a few respects. According to Stanley, the only noteworthy weakening pertains to punishing students who interfere with free speech on campus. A provision that would have mandated suspension for students twice found responsible for silencing others was struck.

Thus, students, at least in theory, will able to shout down speakers for four years and never face punishment beyond a slap on the wrist. This seems like a serious defect in the law.

As Stanley explains, however, if the university refuses to discipline shout-downs in the wake of passage of this law, the annual report of the Board of Governors will either condemn the refusal to discipline, or the committee will itself be subject to public criticism. A negative report on the administrative handling of discipline would give the Board of Regents a reason to replace administrators, and legislators a reason to cut university funds.

In addition, a university that refuses to discipline students who silence others invites a renewed campaign to pass the mandatory suspension for a second offense.

By the same token, passage of the North Carolina bill tells college administrators in other states that they need to take protecting campus free speech seriously. Otherwise, in many jurisdictions, they face the real prospect of intervention by the legislature.

As Stanley concludes:

Campus free-speech legislation is now in play as never before. Administrators will have to take that into account when they decide how to handle free speech. In short, the public has awakened and is actively pushing back against the illiberal assault on speech. That is a silver lining in the current crisis.