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Written by Charlotte Fryar, BA American Studies ’13, PhD Student American Studies, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Until the Board of Governors’ work group met last week to recommend the closing of three UNC-system centers, it had been over fifty years since there was such a blatant assault on the University’s right to scholarly initiative and its students’ and faculties’ right to free speech. Until last week, fifty years ago had seemed like a time far behind us.

In the summer of 1963, only weeks after the violent civil rights protests in Raleigh and Chapel Hill had ended, a small faction within the North Carolina General Assembly narrowly passed the Act to Regulate Visiting Speakers. The law forbade the use of any publicly funded college or university by a speaker who was a known communist, had advocated the overthrow of the United States or North Carolina Constitutions, or had previously pled the Fifth Amendment. It was meant to be a punitive action against the students at UNC and other local universities who had brought the civil rights movement into the hotel lobbies and offices of state legislators.

The Speaker Ban, as it came to be known, was immediately controversial for a number of reasons, the right to free speech protected under the First Amendment foremost among them. Faculty rallied in support of their University, and the administration, led by Bill Friday, began working to dismantle the law from within the legislature. But it was not until a diverse group of students from across the political spectrum came together to challenge the law that the Speaker Ban began to fall apart. Students invited two speakers that fell under the parameters of the law to speak, filing a lawsuit against the University following the speakers’ forced removal from campus. North Carolina courts declared the law unconstitutional five years later.

In the spring of 2013, I interviewed Hugh Stevens, former editor of the Daily Tar Heel and one of the student activists who worked to overturn the Speaker Ban. He spoke passionately and sincerely about the University’s reputation as a liberal bastion and the legacy of the Speaker Ban. “You can never be certain of what you have—don’t take anything for granted,” he told me, “You’ve got to be vigilant about attacks on the University, whatever form they take. That’s a lesson worth knowing, even if you learn it in an unpleasant situation.”

An unpleasant situation is where we find ourselves. The Board of Governors’ work group recommendation to close the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity is not surprising, especially considering the legacy and origins of the Speaker Ban law. The decision to recommend closing the Center was determined by its ‘political advocacy,’ an ironic and deeply troubling rationalization. Poverty is political, as is their recommendation.

To ensure free speech on the University’s campus, students did something unimaginable: they sued the University. Today we are faced with the same challenge to our right to free speech, and we need to respond with the strength and conviction that students and faculty did fifty years ago. Draw on the lessons of our past to insure that the University of North Carolina is the place where academic excellence is able to work freely for the benefit of all people of this state.

 

Charlotte Fryar was one of the Southern Oral History Program’s undergraduate interns who, in Spring 2013, completed an oral history project and live performance on the Speaker Ban Law. Every year the SOHP teaches undergraduates at UNC how to research history from the points of view of those who lived it, in this case the students, faculty, administrators and journalists who helped UNC-CH students maintain their right to free speech fifty years ago. SOHP is proud of the students who teach us everyday about the value of academic integrity, and here we present a video of their live performance, and a research guide they created to help others learn about the issue.

http://vimeo.com/120389533

 

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