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If you glanced at some headlines in 2019, you might be forgiven if you thought higher education had collectively lost its mind over speech and expression issues. Consider:

• This spring, former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey decided against speaking at a college commencement in his native Nebraska. The reason? The state’s Republican Party pressured Creighton University to rescind its invitation because Kerrey supports abortion. Kerrey, a Democrat, served as Nebraska’s governor and represented the state in the U.S. Senate for 12 years. Kerrey did speak at the private Catholic school in October.

• In October, students at Georgia Southern University burned a book written by Cuban-American author Jennine Capó Crucet after she spoke on campus in October. Students were reportedly irked by the author’s comments on white privilege.

• In November, the student newspaper at Northwestern University near Chicago apologized for its coverage of student protests during a campus speech by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Some students said they were traumatized to see their pictures on the student newspaper’s social media accounts. The newspaper’s response triggered a national debate among journalists over coverage of public protests, college campuses and minority communities.

But a new report from a free speech watchdog group suggests that the campus climate for speech and expression — at least on paper — seems to be getting better. The number of free speech incidents are relatively small. And North Carolina’s universities stand out as a collective success story.

Here’s a glance at campus speech and expression — and disruptions to both — in North Carolina and nationwide.

Nationwide

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education had some good news for campus speech advocates in its latest annual report published in December:

• A growing number of U.S. colleges and universities earn FIRE’s highest rating (a green light) because they have no written policies that restrict speech. FIRE gave 11 percent of schools a green-light rating in 2019. That’s up from just 2 percent a decade earlier.

• The number of schools with yellow-right ratings, FIRE’s second-highest grade, have grown from 21 percent in 2009 to 64 percent this year. FIRE gives a yellow light to institutions that it says have overly broad or vague policies that might restrict or suppress speech.

• FIRE gave a red light, its worst rating, to only a quarter of the 471 public and private colleges it surveyed. A decade ago, FIRE listed three-quarters of institutions as red-light schools because they had one or more policies that clearly restricted First Amendment rights or didn’t make their speech policies available to the general public.

• Governing boards or faculty councils at 70 institutions have adopted free-speech statements modeled on the so-called Chicago principles, a free-speech policy statement, written by the University of Chicago in 2015. The statement endorses “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” and FIRE considers it the gold standard of commitment to free expression on campus. Two years ago, just 15 schools had formally adopted the Chicago principles.

“In a lot of ways, (schools) are improving, especially when it comes to those revisiting red-light policies,” said Laura Beltz, a senior program officer at FIRE and author of the group’s latest campus speech report.

Beltz said new laws in some states, including North Carolina, are a big reason for the rise in green-light schools.

But there’s also a glass-half-empty way to look at these numbers. Beltz said more than 6 million U.S. students attend colleges where their First Amendment rights aren’t guaranteed. And some schools seem to have modified their speech policies just enough to escape the glare of FIRE’s red-light rating.

“These policies ... still represent pretty severe restrictions” on expression, Beltz said. “These are the ones that when something controversial comes up they apply that policy in a restrictive way.”

In North Carolina

In FIRE’s eyes, North Carolina stands out as a success story for campus speech. The group gave a green-light rating to 50 schools, 11 of which are N.C. schools — including UNCG, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. North Carolina has more green-light schools than any other state.

Three N.C. schools have adopted the Chicago principles, according to FIRE: Appalachian State, UNC-CH and Winston-Salem State.

Most N.C. public universities got green-light ratings after a new 2017 state law banned free-speech zones — areas on campus where demonstrations and protests are permitted — and ordered the UNC System to crack down on students and employees who interrupt scheduled campus speakers. Critics have called that overbroad because it doesn’t clearly define what it means to “substantially (interfere) with the protected free expression rights of others.”

Only one N.C. school has a red-light rating, Davidson College, which punishes biased speech. Davidson considers such behavior to be “severe, persistent or pervasive to the point that it threatens an individual or limits the ability of the individual to work, study, or participate in College life.” FIRE considers this policy to be too broad and a threat to students’ First Amendment rights.

In a statement issued to the News & Record this month, Davidson said it remains committed “to unfettered inquiry and free expression” and holds “as an imperative of faith the dignity and worth of every person.

“Our sexual harassment and bias policies protect both ideals while also fulfilling our legal obligation to address allegations of discrimination and harassment. Davidson remains focused on preventing acts of sexual misconduct, prejudice or bigotry. While we still have work to do, not a single sexual harassment complaint was received through our formal process over the past three years.

“We are always open to improving our policies based on research and evidence, not on arbitrary ratings.”

On campus

State law requires the UNC System to produce an annual report on free speech and free expression at the state’s 16 public universities. That report includes any disruptions to free expression on campus.

In 2017-18, only three universities reported disruptions. In the 2018-19 report, published in September, four universities reported five disruptive events. These brief descriptions are based on the report, additional information from the UNC System and media accounts where they exist:

• A UNC-CH student was charged with misdemeanor assault in April after an anti-abortion demonstrator was allegedly attacked in The Pit, a major gathering spot on campus. Several days later, a second UNC-CH student was arrested after allegedly walking away with an anti-abortion sign. (That latter incident wasn’t mentioned in the UNC System’s report.) Both incidents were related to a visit to UNC-CH by a group called Created Equal, which displays graphic pictures of aborted fetuses during its tours of college campuses.

• Also at UNC-CH, five protests related to the Silent Sam Confederate statue led to 28 criminal citations and trespass orders. The UNC System report didn’t list the dates of these events, but most took place in August and September 2018 right after protesters pulled down Silent Sam on Aug. 20, 2018.

• At UNC-Asheville in November 2018, three people approached members of the College Republicans, who had set up a table in the student union. The report said the three “expressed disagreement” with the College Republicans, and one of them pushed the group’s materials onto the floor and walked off. University officials weren’t able to identify those individuals.

•At Appalachian State University, one faculty member filed a complaint in September 2018 against another faculty member, allegedly for an undisclosed violation of the university system’s free expression policy. The two professors met with a facilitator, and the first faculty member withdrew the complaint.

• At Western Carolina University, a student “became upset with a religious speaker and grabbed a camera that was being used during the presentation” during the fall 2018 semester, according to the UNC System. The student was disciplined for an unspecified violation of the student conduct code. Western Carolina provided no additional information to the News & Record, which found no media coverage of the episode.

The Trump administration

In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order designed “to promote free and open debate on college and university campuses.” The president, in remarks when he signed the order, suggested that colleges that stifle free speech would lose federal funding. But the order says only that federal agencies should “take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law” and makes no mention of enforcement.

This month, Trump signed another executive order intended to crack down on growing numbers of incidents of anti-Semitic harassment and vandalism at schools and on college campuses. But opponents of this order say it’s actually designed to squash anti-Israel sentiment, especially among campus groups that support Palestinians.

FIRE in a statement called the order ambiguous at best and predicted that institutions will “investigate and censor protected speech on their campuses. Having spent 20 years defending speakers from across the political spectrum, FIRE knows all too well that colleges and universities will rush to punish student and faculty speakers in an attempt to avoid federal investigation and enforcement.”

Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.

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