Freedom of speech on the UNC campus

The UNC Center for Media Law and Policy shared the results of its first-ever campus climate survey about freedom of speech and press issues on the UNC campus on Monday, May 20, 2019.

In Fall 2018, the Center for Media Law and Policy, in conjunction with an undergraduate class at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and the UNC Office for Undergraduate Research, conducted the campuswide representative study of undergraduate students. The survey investigated students’ knowledge of First Amendment protections for different types of speech, students’ support for free expression of unpopular opinions on campus, their experiences with controversial speech in the classroom, and their attitudes toward hate speech, invited speakers and UNC’s Confederate Monument known as Silent Sam.


The impetus for the survey was the passage of the 2017 Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech Act by the North Carolina State Legislature. The new law, prompted in part by the threat of violence and cancellation of campus speakers at universities nationwide, sought to ensure “free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation by students of constituent institutions” and established freedom of speech as a “fundamental right” across UNC member institutions. Modeled after proposed legislation by the conservative Goldwater Institute, the new law requires those institutions to retain their “viewpoint neutrality” on “the public controversies of the day” and allow for discussion and assembly on campus consistent with constitutional time, place, and manner restrictions “necessary to achieve a significant institutional interest.” The law also carries sanctions for anyone who “substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution or substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others.” Those penalties include suspension and dismissal of students in violation of the law.

To investigate the actual state of student understanding of the First Amendment and attitudes toward freedom of expression, this survey of UNC undergraduate students sought to explore their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors regarding First Amendment protected expression on campus.