Public colleges have limited options over free speech

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Jon Camp examines what measures universities can take when dealing with culturally sensitive issues.

One day after NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson got scathing feedback from students about how he and the university reacted to a series of racist remarks that surfaced in school chat rooms online, experts say he was right in saying -- legally -- his hands are tied.

Because NC State is a public school, experts say students' right to free speech is greatly expanded compared to what it might be at a private institution.

Woodson says there's nothing the school can do to punish the students who wrote the racist emails, even down to making them take a cultural sensitivity course.

"It's really hard to make anything mandatory without an implicit threat that if you don't comply you'll be kicked out of school and that is where the school's hands are tied to great extent," said Frank LaMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, DC. "Even really hateful speech is protected under the First Amendment."

READ MORE: NC STATE ADMINISTRATORS UNDER FIRE AFTER STUDENTS' RACIST MESSAGES

But as LaMonte points out, that doesn't mean the school is helpless to respond.

"When you've got racial tensions on campus, when you've got people who feel unwelcome and uncomfortable, it's almost never about one posting on social media," LaMonte said. "There's some underlying big picture problems there. That's where the conversation needs to be. Is there some cultural change that needs to take place on the campus which could take the form of awareness events, better education on the front end, diversified staff and employees?"

That's how UNC-Chapel Hill responded to a racially charged incident there last year.
Chancellor Carol Folt released a message with seven specific bullet points of tangible ways the school was going to try to make all students feel more included. And that seems to be what many students at NC State are looking for.

READ MORE:BLACK STUDENTS VENT FRUSTRATIONS AT NCSU TOWN HALL

"You're in a tough situation as a student and you want to feel supported," said Gabrielle Nortey, a graduate student at NC State. "This thing happened and it makes you uncomfortable and you want to hear the University say, 'We recognize your discomfort and we are supporting you and we are going to work against what's happening.' Rather, you heard the Chancellor say, "Our hands are tied and legally there isn't anything that can be done.'"

ORIGINAL STORY: NC STATE CHANCELLOR DENOUNCES STUDENTS' RACIST COMMENTS

Duke University doesn't have a policy related specifically to hate speech but does require all incoming students to take a cultural sensitivity course during freshman orientation.

LaMonte says that's something NC State could do, even though private schools like Duke do have more latitude when it comes to Constitutional issues.

"Yeah, you could build that into the orientation just in the same way as you'd teach people about how to get along with their roommates or how to navigate the campus," LaMonte said, "and there probably is some sense to that. Given the climate and given the concern that folks, people of color are not feeling welcome and not feeling campuses are hospitable for them, it probably makes some sense to build that into the curriculum going forward."

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