Sunday, February 25, 2024

UNCW restricts freedom of expression on campus, singles out BLM signs

With the pandemic still top of mind among students and faculty, UNCW announced a new policy related to campus banners and signage on Sept. 18.

A sign supporting the Black Lives Matter movement on the entrance to Bear Hall on UNCW campus in June; the sign has since been removed. (Port City Daily photo / Contributed)

WILMINGTON — In a Sept. 18 email, UNCW Chancellor Jose V. Sartarelli announced the university will be implementing stricter regulations in the realm of free expression on campus, as it relates to signage and banners.

“Under the new policy, the university will work with faculty and other campus constituencies to arrange for transition of the remaining #BlackLivesMatter banners that were placed on campus buildings over the summer to a collective art exhibit,” the email said.

The chancellor began his message by lauding recent diversity-focused initiatives undertaken by UNCW since the summer — which include a chancellor’s committee on “Renewal and Change Accountability,” and an effort to raise $1 million for “diversity and inclusion scholarship endowment support.”

“Private support, including a gift from me, has reached $450,000 in new commitments as of Sept. 14,” the chancellor said in the email. “In the coming days, the Office of Facilities will carefully collect the banners and store them in a locked warehouse for eventual inclusion in the exhibit.”

Christopher Neal, head of UNCW’s Black Student Union, said he is involved in discussions with the chancellor focused on addressing Black students’ perspectives and concerns. Neal said in June, a discussion between student leaders and Sartarelli became tense after the chancellor was urged to address the Black Lives Matter movement head-on.

Related: UNCW Faculty Senate President: No-confidence vote for Chancellor Sartarelli still ‘on the table’

“We asked the university to publicly show that they believe black lives matter, and we gave a couple of examples,” Neal recalled. “And then that’s when the chancellor made his statement of, ‘It’s going to be hard for me to do that because I believe all lives matter.’

Under the new policy, there are set preconditions for students wishing to put up banners or large signs around campus. If the student is not sponsored by the university — i.e. not officially acting at the bequest or on behalf of UNCW — they can register to post a banner on campus during the special free expression time frames: between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, and between Feb. 1 and April 30. 

Otherwise, all banners and large signs must be pre-approved by Campus Life, hanged in a set of designated locations, and removed in either 14 days or one day if the sign is for an advertised event. Banners that promote an official UNCW event or activity are allowed under the policy.

“Any member of the University community found in violation of this policy shall be subject to disciplinary action, depending on the nature and severity of the violation and in accordance with established procedures,” the policy says.

According to First Amendment case law, curtailing the freedom of speech is only allowable when a policy indiscriminately prohibits speech in a content-neutral way. This policy does just that, but the only example of existing campus banners mentioned in the email is the reference to Black Lives Matter.

State Board of Elections filings show the members of the current UNCW Board of Trustees have collectively contributed more than $200,000 to Republican candidates and committees over the course of their careers. Public filings show a more-than-20 year history of political action for many of the trustees, who contribute overwhelmingly to right-wing candidates and causes. (Some trustees, like Woody White and Michael Lee, have been candidates for elected offices themselves, and have contributed funds toward their own committees).

The new policy that restricts the freedom of expression on campus was delivered in a time where the community is primarily preoccupied with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and associated anxieties over the state of public health in New Hanover County. 

As of Sept. 10, the 18-to-24 year old age group in New Hanover County makes up a larger percentage of positive Covid-19 individuals than the 25-to-49 year old age group. Approximately 26% of New Hanover County’s Covid-19 cases in the young adult age range are from UNCW students. 

New Hanover County assistant Health Director Carla Turner said in an email that contact tracing operations suggest UNCW’s virus transmissions are occurring at “off-campus social gatherings.”

“We will continue to partner with UNCW to share guidance we receive from the state and provide support as requested as they move forward with their plans,” Turner said.

Neal, the head of the Black Student Movement, said the diversity initiatives outlined by Sartarelli in the email are an adequate starting point for, as Sartarelli called it in his email, “steps to enhance the UNCW experience for people of color…”

“This is a journey that doesn’t stop when I graduate or when other student leaders graduate,” Neal said. “This is something that’s going to continue until there’s a more equitable experience and it’s going to continue after that.”

Usually, the UNCW media relations team sends out UNCW community announcements to the press, and posts press releases on their website. This announcement was not sent to press. A UNCW spokesperson said the university felt that this communication was meant for the students.

[Editor’s note: UNCW is currently operating with an interim chief communications officer after CCO Janine Iamunno went on medical leave in early July.]

Port City Daily learned about Sartarelli’s email on Friday afternoon and reached out to UNCW’s communication team. On Saturday, a spokesperson said they are in the process of producing responses to additional questions.

Update — a UNCW spokesperson offered the following statement:

The university is not a public forum, but is a limited public forum. While we do not review or curtail the content of free expression, the university has the right and responsibility as a public institution to regulate the time, place, and manner of the expression. Students, staff, and faculty have abundant ways to express themselves in their individual capacities: speaking, handing out leaflets, participating in social media, political activity, and, even banners, that conform w/ the university’s time, place, and manner restrictions. Moreover, the policy defers to existing university regulations on student speech; those are unchanged.

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