‘Free Speech’ measure draws some concerns at WCU Faculty Senate

This story was written by Haley Smith, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

Last week, Western Carolina University faculty responded to state legislation intended to protect free speech on public college campuses.

During their Nov. 16 meeting, with only 13 members out of 30 present, WCU’s Faculty Senate expressed concerns about the “Restore Campus Free Speech Act,” also known as House Bill 527, and the accompanying University of North Carolina Board of Governors policy.

The law reaffirms that public university campuses are open to any speaker who wishes to engage in protests or demonstrations that are within the bounds of legality. The catch is, demonstrators who “materially and substantially disrupt the functioning” of the institution will face disciplinary action.

Faculty Senate Chair Brian Railsback said he doesn’t think the senate’s decision will make much of a difference in the Board of Governors decision.

“In this particular instance, our voices need to be heard,” WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar said. “If you’re not heard, it’s not because you didn’t try.”

In July, with no action from Gov. Roy Cooper, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the bill into law.

The Board of Governors drafted a policy to implement the law, but members of the UNC Faculty Assembly are concerned the policy pushes beyond what the law requires.

Last month, Faculty Assembly members submitted a letter to the Board of Governors, requesting changes to the policy before it is adopted.

Faculty Senate member Katerina Spasovska, a journalism professor, said interpretation of the First Amendment is often used as a tool to “limit and intimidate.”

“I am always skeptical that, when regulations happen as an attempt to control something, it can make things worse,” she said. “My job as a professor teaching journalism is to help students develop skills that will allow them to report, interview and critically analyze topics that can be controversial and divisive. What will happen when those stories and my instructions are interpreted as ‘activity’ that ‘substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution’?”

The law requires public institutions to implement disciplinary sanctions for anyone who “substantially disrupts” the function of the institution or interferes with the free speech rights of others.

The corresponding Board of Governors policy defines a “substantial disruption” as:

• “A person who willfully interrupts, disturbs or disrupts an official meeting.”

• Anything that violates a chancellor’s designated curfew period.

• Anything that results in a trespass notice from law enforcement.

The policy states that violators will be judged on a case-by-case basis and discipline may include counseling, warnings, suspensions, dismissals or expulsions.

Railsback said members of the Faculty Assembly hoped the Board of Governor’s policy would use pre-existing misconduct guidelines to discipline individuals, rather than creating a new disciplinary system.

“They also wanted to strengthen the language in the policy so it isn’t quite so focused on students, faculty and staff, but also would include outside agents,” Railsback said.

North Carolina follows at least four other states with the adoption of a free speech law for higher education. Colorado, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia also adopted First Amendment-focused laws.

California, Illinois, Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin all have similar, proposed legislation.

The laws are a result of a trying year for free speech issues in higher education institutions across the country.

In February, violent protests erupted at the University of California-Berkeley, where right-wing editor Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak.

The incident was the first of several this year which called into question First Amendment rights on college campuses.

In September, The Washington Post highlighted an August study conducted by John Villasenor, Brookings Institution senior fellow and University of California at Los Angeles professor.

The study polled 1,500 undergraduate students at four-year colleges and universities across the United States about their understanding of the First Amendment.

Of those surveyed, 51 percent of students said it is acceptable to disrupt controversial speakers by shouting over top of them. One in five students said using violence to disrupt controversial speech is acceptable.