UNC Board of Governors: Some speech is “more free” than others

UNC Board of Governors: Some speech is “more free” than others

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“All speech is free, but some speech is more free than others.” This seems to be the motto of the current members of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors and their General Assembly backers. Like the dictatorial pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm—who declared “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”—the Board is putting a noble veneer on self-serving and disingenuous arguments.

Last summer, the legislature passed the “North Carolina Restore Campus Free Speech Act.” This Friday, the Board will vote on a policy to implement the law on UNC’s seventeen campuses. Among its troubling provisions, the law requires university administrators to adopt an attitude of “institutional neutrality regarding political and social issues.” This principle, it says, is essential to “protecting freedom of thought and expression at universities.”

Yet at the Board’s upcoming meeting, it will take time from its busy work restoring “free speech” to listen to Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University (discussed in a December  8 story in Raleigh’s News & Observer). George is a well-known legal scholar, who also, it so happens, has fought gay marriage and abortion. A conservative Catholic, he even has a soft spot for the controversial Catholic organization Opus Dei. Before the Board, George will discuss “civil discourse.”

Robert P. George

There’s an obvious double standard here: the Board expects (presumably liberal) university administrators to be politically “neutral,” even as it rolls out a red carpet for a conservative crusader. According to its contorted logic, bringing in George promotes “diversity of opinion”—an issue about which the all-Republican Board, appointed entirely by a gerrymandered legislature, obviously cares deeply.

The issue is not whether George has the right to speak to the Board. Clearly, he does. The question is, rather, what George’s career and positions reveals about the Board’s goals for the UNC system.

George is a partisan activist. The Board would have you believe that George is a lifelong advocate for civil discussion. In fact, he has actively promoted a hyper-partisan agenda. He once helped craft a letter suggesting that Catholics who support legal abortion should be denied communion. He also served as the chairman of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which opposes same-sex marriage and produced the notorious “Gathering Storm” ad.

When Board member Tom Fetzer calls George’s work “an incredibly healthy and positive thing for any college campus,” we should take it with a grain of salt: the Board likes George’s politics, not his politeness. The Board’s penchant for double-speak should make us wary of its “free speech” policy and the agenda behind it.

This is particularly evident in the fact that George favors civil disobedience as much as he favors civil discourse. In 2009, George helped draft the “Manhattan Declaration,” which called for Christians to disobey laws contrary to their faith. It states: “we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, …nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships…” For the Board, this is what a champion of “civil discourse” looks like.

The Board is enamored of George because, like many conservatives, it sees higher education as a hostile power. Intellectuals like George have shown that relentless campaigning can give conservatives a foothold in enemy (i.e., liberal) territory. But even as they champion freedom and diversity of opinion, they subscribe to the troubling notion that every social institution must be ideologically balanced. The idea of critical inquiry has undoubtedly attracted liberals to the academic profession. But academe is not the only institution with pronounced political sympathies. The military, for instance, overwhelmingly votes Republican. Should liberals insist on ideological balance among those to whom we entrust our protection? Yet this is precisely what the Board wants for UNC.

The great irony is that the very people who want to make universities “diverse” also embrace the conservative belief that the state always stumbles when it tells society what to do. The Board and the legislature are, in this respect, socialists—precisely in the sense that the Right uses the term. In attempting to inject the “correct” balance of opinion into university life, they are engaging in the kind of social engineering conservatives have always denounced. Reagan famously said that “government is the problem.” On the issue of campus free speech, the Board believes that government is the solution. When it comes to expressing your beliefs, the Board knows what’s best for you.

Dr. Michael C. Behrent is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Appalachian State University and Dr. Jay M. Smith is a Professor in the Department of History at UNC-Chapel Hill. Both are also members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).