Adam Schmidt/Staff Photographer
Students begin to gather in the Talley atrium during the blackout on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016 As they entered, students sang “Life Every Voice and Sing.” After forming a circle around the NC State seal on the floor of the atrium in Talley Student Union, the students began a die-in, and laid down to stage a form of protest in response to recent police shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte.
Casey Johnson | Correspondent
University administrators are saying the new free speech guidelines will not cause major changes to NC State, although the student body president has concerns on how it will be implemented.
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors adopted Policy 1300.8, which changes how protests on campus are dealt with inside the UNC system, on Dec. 15, 2017. Policy 1300.8 states that activity and expression are permitted as long as they do not “materially and substantially disrupt” functioning.
Student Body President Jackie Gonzalez explained, “The whole purpose of the policy, in the eyes of the Board of Governors, is for my opinions and beliefs to not undermine yours. And everyone has a right to share those opinions.” The fourth-year studying political science said, “However, the policy itself, and I’m not the only one critical of this, is a little too vague for me. People across the country share this same opinion.”
Gonzalez, who previously called the policy a “potential hindrance of students’ rights,” said that the reaction to the first incident to arise will set the precedent for for all others.
“People pay attention to it,” she said. “Is this policy being executed in the right way? Can we trust the process and trust the system to know that this policy isn’t going to hurt students? I feel confident that at NC State it won’t.”
“Other institutions don’t have the capabilities and resources [that NC State has] yet,” Gonzalez said. “And that’s something that other student body presidents and I talked about: We felt that it was unfair for the UNC system to push a policy like this without first providing a similar structure for the whole UNC system.”
Vice Chancellor Mike Mullen commented, “This is not the first policy that, over a long number of years, the system has put in place that the campuses have had to adopt. From a procedural perspective, it’s not anything that we haven’t done before, whether it’s aligning our student codes of conduct or our processes around Title IX issues. From that perspective, it doesn’t concern me.”
Mullen said, “This particular policy was put in place to somehow, at the system level, say what we already say at the university level: that we value free speech and that no matter what your opinion or where you’re coming from, whether you’re on one side of an issue or the other, you should have the right to have a forum for that.”
“There really hadn’t been a policy at the system level,” he continued. “Now all the campuses will have to make sure that their polices match the basics of this. Our policy, with the exception of the conduct provisions, already met all of this.”
Gonzalez, however, is still unclear on what exactly counts as a disruption. She said, “One of the things that we students and student body presidents were nervous about was: What constitutes a substantial disruption? Who says it’s a disruption? Is it the person that reports it? Is it the body that hears the case? Is it the chancellor? Or another administrator? These questions weren’t thoroughly addressed. We won’t know until the first situation arises.”
“NC State had a huge die-in last year. Would that constitute a substantial disruption?” she said. “Are you going to go after the 200 plus students that laid in Talley for a disruption?”
Mullen says no. “A permit was obtained. Nobody was disrupted there,” he said. “Talley knew it was going to be happening. Everything that happened with the die-in was well within what we would expect.”
Thomas Hardiman, director of the Office of Student Conduct, said, “From a student’s perspective at NC State, examples from our Code of Student Conduct which could fall under this description may include:
10.5(b): Conduct that disrupts, interrupts, or attempts to force the cancellation of any University-sponsored activity or authorized non-University activity, including educational activities, meetings, ceremonies, scheduled events, essential University processes, and authorized solicitation activities.
10.5(c): Obstruction that unreasonably interferes with freedom of movement or safe passage, either pedestrian or vehicular, on University premises.
These are two examples and do not represent the wide range of factors or actions that could constitute a ‘material or substantial disruption’ under this policy.”
Each individual university in the UNC system will determine consequences for this behavior. Under this policy, disruptive students could be suspended or expelled and faculty may be dismissed.
“I am concerned that they seem like harsh sanctions,” Mullen said. “I do think that anything, except in the most egregious of cases, leading to suspension and/or expulsion is too much. We already have a provision for that and, in my view, if something rises to that level, it means there was violence involved and that takes it to a different part of the student code. Simply demonstrating or being in a protest, for that to ever rise to the level of suspension, I don’t agree with that.”
He continued to say, “It concerns me that we’ve got things lined out in this policy in terms of what a sanction or a punishment might be and trying to determine what is a reasonable disruption versus a not reasonable disruption.”
“We’ll have to see how this plays out in practice as opposed to in theory,” he said.
Hardiman said on Student Conduct’s process for determining the appropriate sanction for this type of offense, “We are going to consider the harm caused by the actions, the intent and deliberation involved in the execution of the behavior, the existence of any prior misconduct on the part of the student or student organization, the equitable treatment for same or similar violations, and the student or student organizations demonstrated understanding of their actions and the impact on the community.”
Gonzalez said, “I feel very confident in our process here in the fact that we have a very strong student conduct board. And we have very strong administrators and advisors that make sure every student has their due process.
“It’s important for students to be paying attention to higher education across the country. This policy was mirrored from another one in Wisconsin,” she said.
“It’s definitely brought awareness to all the UNC institutions in the fact that the Board of Governors is a governing body; they are to do what they feel is best for all 17 institutions,” she said. “And I think we are recognizing now that the Board of Governors are there and passing these policies. And that’s something students should be aware of. I do my best to go to every Board of Governors meeting.”
“I try to do my best to share information that I think is pertinent to the students,” she said. “I think it’s important for students to be aware when they’re voting, looking at policies, seeing those policies trickle down. Don’t start paying attention when it comes to NC State. It’s important to be critical of higher education at every level.”
“We don’t believe this policy will change much here on our campus,” Mullen said. “Our own policies fit right in line with what’s in here in terms of access to space for speech, in terms of how people gain access to spaces. The fact that we can regulate who speaks where based on time, space and manner so it doesn’t negatively affect the academic mission of the university. Those are all things we’ve always had in place.”
“As time goes by,” he continued, “this will end up filtering back to the system and that may mean the system changes their policies or refines them as we see how it goes.”