In post-Charlottesville U.S.A., everyday is a fight for civil rights. University of North Carolina System students and faculty realize this acutely, as the ongoing battle to remove the Confederate statue of Silent Sam illustrates. It appears that UNC cares more about protecting a racist statue than it does defending civil rights. This is the time for visionary leadership and action. We look to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to avoid undue political influence and protect student and faculty rights. Instead, we are witnessing the dismantling of the UNC Center for Civil Rights and a relentless attack upon the legacy of noted civil rights attorney Julius Chambers. This act harms marginalized communities who rely on the Center while disadvantaging UNC law students who should have the opportunity to learn and practice civil rights law.
Many organizations and allies have come to the Center’s defense, including the Society of American Law Teachers. SALT issued a “Statement Opposing Threatened Limitation on UNC’s Center for Civil Rights Participation in Litigation”:
Because of the chilling effect this matter has had and will continue to have on the rights of law faculty and students not only within the UNC law school and system but more broadly throughout the country, SALT is compelled to oppose the attempt to remove the Center’s ability to conduct litigation with clients.
A move to “prohibit litigation by the Center is part of a larger effort to undermine, if not dismantle, academic freedom in the UNC system and across the country,” SALT argues.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt wrote in a letter addressed to Anna Nelson, who serves as chairperson of the Committee on Educational Planning, Policies and Programs: “I am concerned that eliminating or even weakening the law school’s ability to train the next generation of civil rights lawyers will reflect poorly on our university and the school, as well as the university system and the state.” Nelson voted against the ban, saying: “Regardless of what side you stand on, there is something greater at risk—the University.”
UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body President Elizabeth Adkins released a statement in support of the Center addressed to the UNC Board of Governors asking that “the Board reject any proposal that would stifle the ability of the Center and instead urge you to protect our legal students, our disadvantaged North Carolinians, and our state’s reputation.” Will the Board ignore Ms. Adkins’ plea?
Additionally, 600 more people—law professors, deans and law school administrators—sent a letter asking the UNC BOG to reject the proposal, stating: “Attacks on access to justice for the poor and marginalized are never the right answer.” The letters in support of the Center are too numerous to cite in entirety here, but the message is loud and clear: this is an attack on civil rights and on marginalized, vulnerable communities that the people of North Carolina, its faculty and students oppose.
However, the BOG was keen to listen to Pork Council CEO Andy Curliss who said his group has “not been able to establish a productive working relationship” with the Center, and that it “disagree[s] strongly” with claims from them and their clients that hog farmers are “practicing ‘environmental racism’ that injures communities of color.” This begs the question: who is the BOG really protecting?
We oppose the proposal to ban litigation at the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Should the UNC Board of Governors vote to approve the ban, Faculty Forward Network - North Carolina in coalition with the Defenders of Civil Rights will redouble its effort to hold the UNC BOG accountable for racial and economic justice system wide. This attack on civil rights brings shame to the UNC System in a period of civil unrest, where groups of organized white supremacists march through our nation’s streets and campuses proudly waving Confederate and Nazi flags—openly intimidating those in their path. It’s in the UNC System’s best interest to stand with its faculty and students against hate. We believe the UNC BOG should respect the concerns of North Carolina students and greater community, honor faculty rights, and vote no on this damaging proposal to kill the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
Photo Credit: Hayden Abene