2019 Report: UNC System Shows Improvement in Free Speech Policies, Shortcomings in Institutional Neutrality

“Free Speech at UNC 2019,” the Martin Center’s second annual report on the state of free speech and institutional neutrality in the UNC system, reveals substantial gains in freedom of speech since 2018. But more universities have taken official stances on political issues, which may bring them into non-compliance with state law.

Since the publication of last year’s report, three universities—North Carolina State University, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina University—achieved a green-light designation from The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, meaning that there are no institutional barriers to freedom of speech. These universities join seven other schools in the UNC system with a green-light rating. However, several UNC system institutions maintain some policies that hinder free speech.

Institutional neutrality is required by North Carolina’s Campus Free Speech Act, which states that colleges and universities in the state “may not take action, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day in such a way as to require students, faculty, or administrators to publicly express a given view of a social policy.” Despite this legal requirement, UNC Asheville adopted an official policy to divest a significant portion of its endowment from fossil fuels. Four institutions—UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Wilmington, Appalachian State, and North Carolina A&T University—continue to endorse climate change-related pledges.

In addition to official statements on political issues, “Free Speech at UNC 2019” also examines universities’ choices for summer reading assignments and commencement speakers, and the content of freshman orientation sessions in its assessment of institutional neutrality.

“Over the past five years, North Carolina has made significant progress on first amendment protections for students and faculty. But as this report shows, it’s important to continue monitoring campus speech,” said Martin Center president Jenna A. Robinson.

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal is a public charity dedicated to the improvement of higher education in North Carolina and the nation.