A Partial Shout-Down at UNC-Chapel Hill

An interrupted speech shows the battle over "cancel-culture" is not over.

Until recently, it was a point of pride that there hadn’t been any speaker “shout-downs” at UNC-Chapel Hill since 2009. But that changed on Tuesday when student protestors repeatedly interrupted an event sponsored by the UNC-Chapel Hill Federalist Society.

Back in 2009, former Senator Tom Tancredo was run offstage by protestors—and UNC learned a valuable lesson about security protocols for campus speakers. Since then, UNC has prevented speakers from being “deplatformed” by providing adequate police presence and keeping protestors either quiet or outside. FIRE’s disinvitation database reveals that attempts to disinvite speakers to UNC have been unsuccessful.

Federalist Society members asked UNC-Chapel Hill to provide security.Until this week. On October 24, the UNC-Chapel Hill Federalist Society posted a flyer for their upcoming event, titled “Constitutional Law: Addressing the Deceits and Deficits of Legal Education.” The scheduled speaker was Dr. Jeffrey Ventrella, a constitutional law scholar from the Alliance Defending Freedom. Immediately following the announcement, members of the UNC Law community threatened to protest the event and hold a pride event concurrently in the same room where the event was scheduled. Federalist Society members responded by asking UNC-Chapel Hill to provide security.

One hour before the event, UNC Law School sent an email to all law students, writing:

The University respects the rights of speakers invited to campus to be heard and to complete their presentations, regardless of the content of their speech [emphasis in the original]. The University also respects the right of individuals to protest and express their views. The guidelines below follow University protocol for speaker events involving officially recognized student groups.

  • If an attendee behaves disruptively or interferes with an invited speaker’s ability to be heard or be viewed by other members of the audience, the attendee causing the disruption will receive a warning. If, after receiving the warning, the same attendee causes a disruption or interference, Public Safety may remove the attendee from the event and, depending on the circumstances, may arrest the attendee. If the attendee removed from the event is a University student, the student will also be referred to the Office of the Dean of Students for possible disciplinary action under the University’s Honor Code in addition to any criminal charges.
  • Attendees who bring handheld banners or signs may stand and display them along the left and right walls of the room or auditorium. Individuals holding posters or banners must not interfere with ingress or egress.
  • No signs will be allowed in the room or auditorium that are made from wood or metal, or that are affixed to wooden or metal sticks, or that otherwise pose a safety hazard.
  • For speaker events that include a question-and-answer period, to allow sufficient time for others to ask questions, attendees may take no longer than one minute to ask their question if questions directly from the audience are permitted.

A copy of the University’s free speech policy was included in the email.

The event began as scheduled. However, protestors, many of them from the LGBT student group Carolina Outlaw, attempted to disrupt and possibly shut down the event with repeated chants of “the Founders were enslavers.” At times, the speaker could not be heard. At the direction of a Law School dean, UNC security personnel did not enter the room. Instead, they stood in the hallway and allowed disruptions to continue. All protesters were allowed to stay, despite their repeated interruptions of the event.

Security personnel left soon after the event, despite the continuation of the protest. The speaker and members of the Federalist Society were forced to leave the event via a different route.

UNC Media Relations defended the University’s actions in an email to the Martin Center, writing, “The individuals who caused interruptions were reminded of the guidelines, which is procedure, and the event continued. UNC Police were on hand to help the lecture proceed as planned.”

Reached by email, Kendall Williams, president of the UNC-Chapel Hill Federalist Society, stated, “Moving forward, I hope we can have events where speakers and our members feel safe and able to talk and listen. Dissenters are always welcome, but interrupting the speaker is antithetical to productive discussion.”

Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.