UNC’s First Amendment Day has become a recent tradition to Chapel Hill’s rich history. Each year, the university attempts to celebrate our God-given right to free speech by encouraging the university to read from banned books and discuss the importance of the First Amendment. A valiant effort to the naked eye, but if you look closer freedom of speech is far from being celebrated on our campus.
Take, for instance, how the university wants students to handle gender neutrality. The Writing Center at UNC promotes Gender-Sensitive Language. It has promoted using the words “machine-made”, “the average (or ordinary) person”, and “letter carrier” as a replacement for “man-made”, “the common man”, and “mailman”. Yes, the phrase “man-made” is now an attack on women, and is thus, sexist in the eyes of UNC’s main organization for students who need help writing essays.
Also on the subject of limiting free speech would be the subject of “speech codes” the university enforces. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), speech codes are defined as, “Any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large. Any policy—such as a harassment policy, a student conducts code, or a posting policy—can be a speech code if it prohibits protected speech or expression.”
Now, to the average student, speech codes sound like a great idea. Harassment and other forms of intimidation are certainly not acceptable in society, and we, as a university, want to make sure that students are welcomed and not harassed for their actions or beliefs. However, while people may know harassment is not tolerated, the university solves the entire problem through censoring those who break these rules.
FIRE made a detailed noting of UNC’s suspension of the speech code after the national outcry over student Landen Gambill, who fought UNC after the university failed to properly treat her sexual assault case. Gambill, to those who may have forgotten, was formally charged with an Honor Code violation for “disruptive or intimidating behavior” against her alleged rapist, although she has never publicly named him. Why she didn’t go the police with this problem has yet to be discussed, however, she has a right to speak as long no threatening comments were made.
The problem is that a year before this whole situation went down, UNC knew that their speech code was unconstitutional. Samantha Harris, the director of speech code research for FIRE, said that “Because of [several policies] vague wording, it is also difficult for students to know exactly what is prohibited and what is allowed, which leads to a chilling effect on student speech.”
Winston Crisp, UNC’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, responded at the time by saying “I understand that adverse effect could be applied loosely and be problematic. But we are talking about actions that make it difficult for people to access education.” The mind wonders whether he would say the same thing one year later, when Gambill was under attack for violating those vague policies.
Now, while UNC deserves the most shame by not providing in documents an atmosphere that protects the First Amendment, they surprisingly are not alone. At Modesto Junior College in California, student and Army Veteran Robert Van Tuinen was stopped by a campus officer from handing out copies of the United States Constitution to his classmates, as he did not have a “Time and Place” slip to do so. He could not hand out the document that states that all citizens in the United States are entitled too because he lacked sufficient authorization from the university.
So all we need to do is fix some documents, edit some speech codes, and everything will be fine, right? Well, UNC’s limiting of free speech goes beyond that of what it says in print. The university itself has harmed free speech, and it will take more than just a quick look-over to solve the problem.
One instance in particular was the pro-life display that took place last spring at UNC. UNC’s Students for Life, set up a display that remembered the 915 fetuses who are killed every day at Planned Parenthood facilities. What they were met with were students stealing boxes of informative postcards the group intended to hand out as well as, people making profane comments on Twitter and in person to these members. In fact, while the group was getting a picture to mark their successes, two female students stood behind them and flipped off the camera.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this student organization! Students began writing to The Daily Tar Heel to relieve their anger. One student, now sophomore Ishmael Bishop, wrote that we all need to stand up to end the “classist, racist, sexist systems of oppression and patriarchy in which we live”, and ended his letter with “Coming to Carolina has taught me that it matters where you stand. Stand with Roe! Stand for reproductive justice! Stand with Planned Parenthood!”
Coming to Carolina has also taught me that it matters where to stand. It matters where you stand because if you cross one line, the university is on your back, and if you cross another, the student body will throw you under the bus. If anyone at Carolina actually cared about free speech, they wouldn’t throw some fake celebration that has the same value as a half-birthday party. If anyone actually cared, someone would revise the speech codes to assure that our rights as men are assured, meaning promoting free speech as long as it wasn’t threatening to anyone else and actually allowing people with opposing views to speak without fear of vandalism and oppression.
Free speech is about the right to speak without fear; not about first making sure that the university’s feelings won’t be hurt or promoting the most popular opinion. The First Amendment, which has supremacy over anything Carolina believes on what free speech is, states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. Maybe that’s an idea the university should promote, that not one body or man (or individual, for those who working the Writing Center who don’t want to offend anyone) has any right to limit speech. Whether it is actually harming Vice Chancellor Crisp’s vision for everyone to have access to a perfect educational system, or standing on an unpopular opinion, speech should not be abridged at one moment, in order to be celebrated at another.