In 2017 the Republican-controlled NCGA passed H527, “Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech.” The law prohibited campus protests that “infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.” Specifically, the policy limits “disruptions of speakers and meetings on UNC campuses.” Moreover, the law created a “Committee on Free Expression” composed of 11 members of the BOG charged with writing annual reports detailing the state of free speech on UNC campuses.
The bill was based on model legislation created by FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director for FIRE, said that the bill is “designed to incentivize respect for the First Amendment, and to protect speech for all, including those with conservative opinions.” Ironically, the foundation had already given UNC-Chapel Hill a “Green Light,” its highest rating for free speech rights. While the initial draft included a provision where people could sue in state court, UNC officials were able to convince legislators to cut that piece of the law.
The law was largely viewed as a response to escalating protests over Silent Sam and clashes between protestors and university system administration. That same year a UNC Trustee called protestors of the statue “entitled wimps.”
Lt. Gov Dan Forest pushed the bill and proposed that North Carolina’s 17-campus public university system create a policy that includes punishments for “those who interrupt the free expression of others.” After H527’s passage, the ACLU voiced concern, citing issues with the “overly broad, vague” nature of the legislation.
H527 followed conservative hand-wringing about free speech and “viewpoint diversity.” Former BOG member Joe Knott penned an opinion piece in the News & Observer titled “We need more conservative professors. Here’s how we can do that at UNC.” Furthermore, the campus free speech bill was co-sponsored by Jonathan Jordan. Before running for office, Jordan served as the director of research for the Pope-funded John Locke Foundation, a think-tank launched in 1990 that Art Pope and his father launched that now serves as the “states’ premier idea generator on the right.”
Notably, in another attack on protestors earlier that year, the North Carolina House of Representatives approved legislation that would give civil and criminal immunity to drivers if they hit protestors who are blocking the road. This legislation was particularly egregious after a white supremacist murdered an anti-racist protestor in Charlottesville by hitting her with a car.
In more recent news on free speech, UNC-Chapel Hill is launching a “Program of Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse” in Fall 2021. In what appears to be a “program for conservative thinking,” this new program is rumored to have come at the behest of the conservative-leaning BOG. Approved by the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill, the planning for the center has occurred largely behind closed doors, yet the BOG has sought input (on the university’s dime) from Robert George, a conservative professor who runs the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.