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BIG CITY: A salute to champions for truth

Kirk Ross
For a long time, that old stone wall across from the post office where Henderson Street “T’s” into Franklin Street was mostly a place to sit — a kind of imaginary divider between Chapel Hill and the public university it hosts.

They were all but the same for a long while – university and town – with the utilities run by the UNC facilities department and almost every elected board dominated by, if not entirely composed of, individuals employed by the school.

That started changing in the 20th century. Little by little, the town, which was founded (or at least its first downtown plots were auctioned off) on the same day that William Davie donned his mason’s apron to lay the cornerstone of Old East, grew more independent of the university.

We celebrate that act of setting the cornerstone on Oct. 12, but this year on University Day it was the old wall along Franklin Street that saw another moment in the spotlight and reminded us that truth doesn’t just happen, it has to be sought, and sometimes it needs a champion.

When I first became a reporter in this town, I sat not far from the stacks of bound editions full of the work of the scribes who worked the beats here before I did. I couldn’t have had a better education about Chapel Hill. (Dave Hart and I used to get into trouble for spending too much time reading the old papers.)

My introduction to the Speaker Ban was like that of a lot of people in Chapel Hill, only decades later – I read about it in the Weekly, where week after week Jim Shumaker and company, no doubt at the urging of the famously headstrong Orville Campbell, detailed the struggle between the university and the legislators who insisted that its mission to educate be tailored to suit a particular ideology.

This was when Campbell would devote whole pages to speeches by President William Friday and others in defense of the university and its right to create an academic atmosphere unencumbered by the need to constantly test the wind to see which way the politics were blowing.

The Speaker Ban fight is one of the great free-speech struggles in the history of our state and certainly ranks among the most important moments in the life of our town.

And it was the wall, that beautiful old wall, that marked the dividing line between where truth was dimmed and where it shined.

If you don’t know the story, you ought to. I can’t do it justice in the real estate afforded here, but whether you’re a citizen of town or gown or both, it’s an important lesson in understanding the history of this place.

You should know that during the Speaker Ban struggle, Friday and Student Body President Paul Dickson put themselves on the line so that people with whom they disagreed might have their say. They fought not for someone’s views but for their right to have them and to speak out. Dickson, Friday and their allies held a state that wouldn’t ratify the constitution without promise of a bill of rights accountable to those core beliefs.

They were champions of the truth and they deserve our praise and the honor of a marker along the wall that symbolized the front line of academic liberty.

The Speaker Ban was a test of our ability to rise above the politics of the day. There will be more challenges ahead. We’re in another era where ideology and political polarization could easily engender attempts in the legislature to limit teaching or alter curriculum. And as the cost of college rises and families struggle to make ends meet, we have to remember that poverty often stands between a person and an education.

Truth will always need a champion. Someday it could be you. If you need a means, please remember that you have at your disposal the same tools Paul Dickson and Bill Friday had and, through their action, helped to pass on to future generations.

Around here we call them by their Latin names:

Lux and Libertas.

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