UNC-Chapel Hill YAL fights speech codes with FIRE

David Deerson
Oct 11, 2012 at 2:58 PM

The UNC Young Americans for Liberty had an outstanding Constitution Week, consisting of speakers, demonstrations, campus outreach, and culminating in a filming of the Stossel Show, which aired on Fox Business Network on Thursday, September 27th. 

Since UNC was recently demoted to a red-light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), we decided to focus our energies on the First Amendment of the Constitution in particular and the ideals of free expression in general. 

On Constitution Day (Monday, September 17th), we went out on the quad to hand out Constitutions and talk about free speech. Some of our members were wearing UNC-brand duct tape over their mouths, to symbolize the restrictions that UNC places on our freedom of expression. The duct-tape gimmick was a huge success, inspiring an enormous amount of curiosity among passers-by. We handed out all of the constitutions that YAL sent us in the mail, as well as a few Cato-published copies we had left over from last fall’s Constitution activism.

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In addition to the founding documents, we handed out flyers informing students that Robert Shibley, executive vice president of FIRE, would be speaking on campus that evening about “How UNC Stifles Free Speech, and What You Can Do About It.” These were the same flyers that we had plastered campus with the week before, making our model Audrey somewhat of a campus celebrity! Apparently, people still come up to her and ask “Aren’t you the girl with the duct-tape from all those flyers?"

audreyWe also filmed some interviews with a few random students and faculty members. We asked them if they thought free speech was important and why. We also informed them that UNC has certain policies restricting free speech, and asked for their input on when it is acceptable to limit expression. The video is still in the editing process, but keep an eye out for it in the coming weeks!

Robert’s lecture that evening was a huge success, garnering about 40 attendees and earning us the first of our constitution week media coverage, in this Daily Tar Heel (DTH) article. As we learned from Robert, FIRE identified SIX different speech codes that could be used to restrict free speech, including two that did so “clearly and substantially.” We’ll come back to those speech codes later. His lecture inspired the Daily Tar Heel to write this stirring op-ed piece in favor of reforming our speech codes. By the way, the DTH isn’t just any school paper: the Princeton review named it the best student-run newspaper in the country in 2007 and 2010, and it consistently ranks higher than professional newspapers in the state. Nearly everyone on campus, students and faculty alike, reads the paper daily. 

Our biggest event that week was a filming of the Stossel Show. John Stossel was on campus debating Howard Dean on Thursday evening, and his producers had asked UNC YAL to assist them in filming an episode of their show on Friday. We worked together to create a great program all about free speech, both on campus and off. This was no easy process, as their needs for filming space were very specific, and they required all day to set up. It took a huge amount of effort to find a way to make it work, but we persevered! Thankfully, UNC YAL has a very good relationship with the school’s Office of Events Management. For years, even before we were YAL, we made it a point to visit the office in person, be friendly, and establish good relationships with events management staff. The Stossel Show was the payoff of those efforts, and it was well worth it! I was even featured as a guest on the show, and Stossel mentioned YAL several times during the episode.

A few hundred students came out to see the show, and everyone had a great time. We got to hang out with John and his staff backstage before the event, pose for photos, get autographs, and talk about liberty! Check out the DTH’s coverage of the filming in these two articles.

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Now, here’s the best part. What I didn’t tell you is that before we started work on any of this activism, we worked with FIRE to send a letter to the UNC administration alerting them that their policies were antithetical to freedom, and likely unconstitutional. I recently got word from FIRE that, while nothing is finalized yet, it is clear that UNC will be taking the appropriate steps to amend almost all of their speech codes!

An e-mail from Azhar Majeed at FIRE reads:

Your activism (including Robert's campus talk and the Stossel event) helped convince the administration to revise several unconstitutional speech codes. As a result of your activism and your involvement with FIRE, the school has already taken steps to revise most of [their six speech codes]. FIRE is in contact with UNC to address the remaining few problematic provisions, and we are optimistic about working amicably with the administration toward making UNC the latest "green light" school (none of which would be possible without your activism and campus events).

That’s right -- not only was our activism fun and informative, but it helped to actually change UNC’s speech codes. We won! 

Thanks to FIRE, Young Americans for Liberty, the Stossel folks, and Students for Liberty (who helped facilitate communication between Stossel and us), as well as the dedication and hard work of our members and leaders, UNC will now be a freer place for all. 

Now that’s activism.