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Carolina Journal Reports: Silent Sam may speak loudly in national conversation on free speech

From Carolina Journal’s Kari Travis –

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is poised to set a national example of allowing lawful protest while protecting free speech. But campus administrators and law enforcers so far have come up short, some experts say.

As public universities bend under the force of rampant — sometimes violent — political unrest, all eyes turn to UNC-Chapel Hill, where the toppling of a Confederate statue recharges a national conversation about public safety and the future of free speech.

On Aug. 20, a group of about 250 protesters, including students and activists, marched on Silent Sam, a memorial to UNC students who died in the Civil War that formerly stood on the Chapel Hill campus. Long a firestarter for arguments, Sam was cut down by protesters with ropes and torches.

More protests followed Aug. 30, with supporters and opponents of Silent Sam facing off around the statue’s pedestal. No injuries were reported, but the crowd was rowdy. Pepper spray was used to maintain order. A handful of people were arrested for brawling or resisting officers.

It’s the job of any public university to protect First Amendment rights as fully as possible, said Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group. That can be tough during a demonstration where public safety is at risk.

UNC’s handling of the Silent Sam issue matters because “universities should always be looking for a way to show how civil society can air our disagreements in a civilized fashion, keep people safe, and respect their liberties,” Shibley said.

While the end-of-month counter-protests were handled pretty well, the university failed to set that example Aug. 20, he said.

Then, law enforcers stood back and watched as protesters pulled Silent Sam from its pedestal.Emails and texts later showed officers were directed not to engage with the group. High-level officials at UNC-Chapel Hill also ordered barricades around Silent Sam be removed before the protest, sources told Carolina Journal.

The scene, though not violent, mirrors incidents like those in Berkeley, California; Columbia, Missouri; and Charlottesville, Virginia.

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