UNC Was Right to Call the Cops

<好色先生TV>A wise society enforces neutral laws before violence occurs.

The recent protests at UNC are only one example of the unrest at several campuses across the U.S. () in response to events in the Middle East. By April 2024, protests had been going on for months at UNC. An escalation occurred when, after students at Columbia University introduced the tactic of encampments on their campus鈥攊.e., camping out in a public space鈥攖he tactic spread to other universities, including Carolina.

While free expression is extended broad license on campus, protestors still must comply with university policies.While free expression, including protests, are extended broad license on campus (especially at public universities), they still must comply with university policies and government laws regarding . This is federal law and complies with current interpretations of the First Amendment. These restrictions often include where and when protests may take place and are set up to enable the university to continue to function and faculty and students to proceed with the learning process. Creating ongoing tent cities on areas like the quad is one of the modes of expression not allowed at most universities, as doing so creates safety, health, and other functional issues that interfere with university operations.

At UNC, between April 26 and April 30, protesters had erected a tent city and taken other actions that were . When made aware of these infractions, the protesters refused to take down their encampment. On April 30, when ongoing negotiations had led nowhere, UNC brought in police to remove the encampment. After warning people to leave to avoid arrest, . In the end, they detained 36 protesters, a considerable number of whom were not Carolina students.

Several UNC faculty and staff signed a letter criticizing the administration for calling the police, ,

The student encampment located on Polk Place was an example of the kind of peaceful free expression that our university claims to uphold. Free speech is often challenging; it can make people uncomfortable, and it can grow heated. But until that speech crosses the line into violence or obstruction, it must be protected, even at the cost of discomfort or patches of grass yellowed by tents. The administration鈥檚 decision to call in police from across the state to storm our students鈥 encampment at 5:30 in the morning on Tuesday, April 30, created a militarized and unsafe climate on the UNC campus. It subjected the very students it is charged with protecting to violence and trauma.

A counter-letter from other UNC faculty, staff, students, and the community came out in support of the administration鈥檚 actions, ,

We strongly support free speech. But free speech has limits, including reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. Additionally, conduct that violates the law is not protected. These rules must be followed so that the University can be a place where everyone can go about teaching, learning, and exercising their own free speech rights, without interruption, interference, or intimidation. Importantly, all policies and laws must be applied uniformly to all actors, without prejudice and without regard to the strength of convictions.

Full disclosure: I was a signatory and an originator of this second letter.

“Policies and laws must be applied uniformly to all actors, without prejudice and without regard to the strength of convictions.”There is common ground in these perspectives. Both supporters and critics of administration actions agree on the fundamental importance of free expression as a core value of the university. Both also prefer that their university avoid calling the police to campus to deal with protesters.

That said, the two letters outline the difficult question administrators face鈥攏amely, 鈥淲hen is it appropriate to call in the police? When protesters violate university policies and state/federal laws or when protests become violent?鈥 Although each affected campus had unique circumstances, the debate at UNC serves as a microcosm of the same national debate.

The for abstaining from bringing in the police unless there is violence is made of the following points:

1. Abstaining supports the university鈥檚 mission to allow free expression.

2. It retains trust between the administration, faculty, students, and the community.

3. It avoids potential escalation, which leads to more confrontation.

These are compelling arguments, so let us address each one.

Allowing Free Expression

Free expression is a core value of a university. However, free expression does not apply only to protesters and does not mean that speech can be expressed in any manner, at any time, or in any place. For example, one can debate whether protesters were wearing medical masks for their safety or to hide their identity and intimidate others. I favor the latter explanation based on communications from the protesters themselves (). Certainly many people on campus, especially Jewish faculty and students, were intimidated by it.

Creating a semi-permanent encampment and taking over buildings also produces health and safety issues, disrupts the university鈥檚 operations, and makes parts of campus inaccessible to the university community. Some encampments around the country did not allow people to or even to enter other campus buildings , especially if they were Jewish.

Both avenues, calling in the police and not calling in the police, risk escalation.Retaining Trust

Again, trust must be maintained not just with protesters and those who support their cause but with everyone on campus and the public. As evidenced by the dueling letters above, there were many who supported the administration鈥檚 enforcement of the law. Universities have seen the , and the protests and attendant congressional hearings have surely only further reduced it. Per the , a 鈥溌爏hows residents even of that blue-leaning state [New York] 鈥 agreed 70 percent to 22 percent that the protests 鈥榳ent too far, and I support the police being called in to shut them down.鈥欌

Avoiding Potential Escalation

Both avenues, calling in the police and not calling in the police, risk escalation. At UNC, protesters had occupied back in November 2023, already disrupting university operations. The encampments themselves were another escalation of the violation of university policies and laws.

A national example of not enforcing the law played out , where fights broke out between protesters and counter-protesters while police looked on. According to the above article, several participants were taken to hospitals for injuries suffered in the altercation.

From a legal, ethical, and strategic perspective, calling in the police when policies and laws were broken but prior to violence occurring was the proper approach at UNC and other campuses.

Legally, universities are within their rights to enforce time, place, and manner guidelines if they are administered in a content-neutral manner. That is, they cannot be enforced against one group whose positions the university dislikes but not enforced against another group the administration favors. That is also the ethical approach. UNC and other universities that acted similarly can thus make the case that they complied with the law and acted ethically, as well.

Universities are responsible for maintaining a respectful academic environment and recognizing established limitations on speech.Strategically, neutrally enforcing policies and laws using the police avoids putting the university in the position of having to allow groups not favored by the university community (e.g., Sons of the Confederacy) to occupy buildings or establish encampments on campus simply because administrators allowed other groups to do so. It also can prevent legal issues such as a , which now. (I don鈥檛 think many universities like the possibility of a Trump DOJ performing such an investigation.)

My reading of the positions of the two bastions of free expression鈥擣IRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) and Heterodox Academy鈥攊s that both support the above positions. You can decide for yourself by reading and.

Lastly, universities, especially the faculty, are responsible for maintaining a respectful academic environment and recognizing established limitations on free speech. The stated this explicitly in its . It speaks not just of 鈥淔aculty Rights鈥 (which we talk about often) but also our 鈥淩esponsibilities.鈥 In the latter section, the guidance calls on faculty to, among other things,

Maintain a Respectful Academic Environment: Because robust debate and disagreement are integral to academic life, faculty members have a responsibility to foster an environment where diverse viewpoints are freely expressed and debated in the classroom, among faculty, and on campus. They should encourage students and colleagues to challenge and critically evaluate all ideas, including their own, and to approach disagreements and disputes in a constructive manner.

Recognize Established Limitations on Free Expression: Faculty members should recognize and respect that academic freedom does not support speech, expressions or actions unprotected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, including those that meet the legal criteria for harassment, true threats, defamation, invasion of privacy, destruction of property or disruptive[ness] to classes or other campus activities.

Ultimately, the decision to call in the police reflects a challenging balance between maintaining order and respecting free expression, and administrators at UNC and other universities had to make a tough decision about the protests. I contend that university leaders who brought in police before violence occurred made the right call.

Mark McNeilly is a professor of the practice at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. The views expressed are his own and are not meant to represent the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.