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Public Safety vs. Free Speech

The UNC-Chapel Hill police department interviewed a community political group regarding their beliefs about Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan


The right to free speech, particularly for social activists, was tested again at the University of North Carolina. I was among approximately six total Faculty and students, associated with the Carolina Socialist Forum, who planned to hand out copies of an excerpt of Congressional testimony between Representative Bernie Sanders and Alan Greenspan, Chair of Federal Reserve. This went peacefully as planned, without incident. We made it clear throughout our planning that we would not obstruct traffic or doorways but would attempt to educate people about the effects of Greenspan's monetary policies through a simple and generous act of handing out reading material.

The day before the protest, Captain Williams, Chief Investigator of the University's Public Safety Department, came to see me with copies of e-mail correspondence between myself and the Carolina Socialist Forum and a list of all the 'David Richardsons' on campus from which he wanted me to identify the one who belonged to the CSF. He asked whether anyone in our group had "far-out ideas," told me that "everybody loves Greenspan," and alerted me to the fact that he would research the members of the Carolina Socialist Forum.

Campus Security, which should be ensuring the safety and protecting the rights of the University community, is instead monitoring student organizations' e-mail, attempting to chill free speech and investigating members of a University organization.

Ninety faculty members signed my letter to the University Chancellor demanding that the role of security be clarified. Chancellor Hooker responded with a letter, in which he wrote, "I am committed to assuring that this campus remains the full and free marketplace of ideas...It is clear from Chief Gold's report that Public Safety was following standard operating procedures."

Daniel Pollitt, Kenan Professor of law, emeritus, at the University, demanded, "How long has this police surveillance operating procedure been standard?...I have been involved in a number of protests against visiting dignitaries:...Rockefeller...Vice President Bush...US Attorney General Thornberg...Throughout these years a policeman came to my office only once. He was sent by Coach Dooley to find out if I was watching football practice out of my window."

The campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, took the position that you should be ready for questions when protesting an important national leader. In contrast, Pollitt wrote in the Raleigh News & Observer:

No matter how sugar-coated the denial, when public authorities authorize the police to interrogate political protesters, what you have literally is a police state...When liberty competes with security, the First Amendment cannot be put in the back seat to visiting dignitaries, even if one assumes they will not come without this kind of standard operating procedures.

We did not go to protest for the right to free speech. We went to hand out congressional testimony between Sanders and Greenspan and this act evoked such fear in campus security that they investigated it as a potential threat to Greenspan. Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Chair, who should be answering the questions raised by Sanders, is being protected from them.

Yes, we did expect to be contacted by security regarding safety, but not regarding Greenspan's ideology, nor about an investigation into, and questions about, members of the Carolina Socialist Forum. I still feel that Captain Williams' visit was more about his problems with the content of speech rather than anyone's safety. I do not believe that visits like these should be normal operating procedure. The Carolina Socialist Forum was singled out. We should be clear on this: the group was investigated because it was a socialist group, whose ideology differs from Greenspan's.

While we all seem to concur that free speech and academic freedom are essential to an educational and democratic society, there seems to remain a confusion about what constitutes a safety issue and what constitutes a speech issue.

The entire discussion with Captain Williams should have been about safety, not political content. Is it routine to investigate and visit political dissident groups? Since Captain Williams had copies of e-mail and a list of 'David Richardsons,' are we to assume that files are kept on faculty members, students, university groups, and staff, who participate in political activism?

Visiting dignitaries have the secret service and other such protection. What protection do we have? We need, and have every right, to be assured that the exercj¤e of our rights is not only protected, but encouraged‹as opposed to being previewed and questioned. Perhaps most importantly, how can we prevent members of our community from feeling that they've used their free speech up? If one feels intimidated, endangered, or silenced as a result of her practice of free speech, will she continue to practice it?

If not, or if she begins to self-censor to avoid such intimidation, we've failed to create the essential environment for an educational and democratic community.

  elin o'Hara slavick, Assistant Professor of Art at UNC at Chapel Hill, is a mixed-media artist. David Richardson is affiliated with the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Public Health.  

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