Panel OKs Litigation Ban For UNC Civil Rights Center

Aug 1, 2017

Updated at 2:55 p.m., August 1, 2017

A committee has approved a ban on courtroom work by a center founded at the University of North Carolina to help the poor and disenfranchised.

The Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs voted 5-1 Tuesday to approve the ban, which prohibits the UNC Center for Civil Rights in Chapel Hill from pursuing litigation on behalf of its clients. In the past, those clients have included people challenging school segregation or a landfill in a poor community.  One committee member, Darrell Allison, abstained.

Related: Litigation Ban Aimed At UNC Civil Rights Center, Not Clinics

Center advocates described the ban as ideological, while ban supporters reiterated their belief that lawsuits are not part of the UNC system's academic mission.

UNC Board of Governors members argue that the center should not be able to sue other state entities and that litigation is outside the mission of a university.

“I don't care what their political ideology is,” said board member Steve Long, who is also a former member of the board of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank in Raleigh. “If it was conservative, moderate, liberal, I’d still be against it. I'd still put forth this proposal. But of course, they are going to make that argument.”

But Ted Shaw, the director of the Center for Civil Rights, sees it differently.

“With all due respect, it's an ideological hit directed at the center for civil rights,” Shaw said at the meeting Tuesday. “It can be denied, but I think if we're candid, everybody knows why we're here and what the politics are.”


Supporters of the UNC Center for Civil Rights protest outside of a committee meeting of the UNC Board of Governors meeting on August 1, 2017.
Credit Dave Dewitt / WUNC

Civil rights advocates, faculty, and several hundred law school deans from across the country called the policy an affront to academic freedom, and a politically motivated attack.

Committee chair Anna Spangler Nelson opposed the ban, saying she believes policies like this should be set at the campus level.

UNC system President Margaret Spellings did not express an opinion on the policy during the public meeting. In a statement afterward, she did not take a position, but said: "As a University, we are resolute in defending civil rights, facilitating opportunities for civil discourse and teaching students through service – and experiential – learning. We do this in service to the citizens of North Carolina and in honor and celebration of leaders who have gone before. And we want to make sure this important work continues at all of our institutions."

The center has a long history of periodically suing school districts and local county boards of commissioners over issues of segregation and discrimination.

The UNC Board of Governors will consider the ban at its meeting in September.