North Carolina Speaker Ban

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UNC Student Body President Paul Dickson (right) standing beside Frank Wilkinson (left) before addressing the crowd on Franklin Street

On June 26, 1963, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Act to Regulate Visiting Speakers, later known as the Speaker Ban Law. The law forbade anyone to speak on a University of North Carolina campus who was a known member of the Communist Party, or who was known to advocate overthrow of the United States Constitution, or who had invoked the Fifth Amendment in respect of communist or "subversive" connections. The law was rushed through in the closing hours of the legislative session with virtually no debate.

To challenge the law, two speakers were invited to campus who were communists under almost any definition. When university officials refused to allow them to speak on campus, students from the university, led by Student Body President Paul Dickson, filed a federal lawsuit that ultimately declared the Speaker Ban Law invalid due to vagueness.

Background[edit]

In the early 1960s, social unrest over segregation was increasing in parts of North Carolina, and protesters would often make themselves highly visible to the media and lawmakers. Some students and faculty members from the University of North Carolina joined in these protests and, while the university had no official involvement with these demonstrations, a link formed in the public perception.

To many members of the conservative General Assembly, it seemed that the university was stirring up unrest among blacks, and in the Cold War atmosphere of the early 1960s, communism was feared to be at the root of this challenge to authority. Some state legislators believed that if communist agitators were inciting racial unrest and spreading their message through the university, then legislation could put an end to it.

Passage[edit]

In the waning hours of the 1963 General Assembly session, Rep. Phil Godwin introduced the bill, then called for a suspension of the rules to expedite its passage through the state House of Representatives. There were no committee hearings and no advance notice that the bill would be introduced, and only a few of the bill's supporters had copies of the legislation. The bill passed three readings in four minutes.

Having been passed in the House, the bill was immediately taken across the Legislative Building to the North Carolina Senate chamber, where Clarance Stone was presiding. When one senator spoke briefly against the bill, Stone responded by saying "No, it sounds like a real good one to me, I think we ought to get this one through." When several other members of the Senate began to rise to speak against the bill, Stone took off his glasses and said he saw no more people wanting to speak. He then called for the voice vote and declared that the bill had passed.

Governor Terry Sanford was against the bill, but at that time the governor of North Carolina could not veto legislation.

Criticism of the law[edit]

In addition to arguments that the Speaker Ban Law violated the First Amendment's right to freedom of speech, many commentators pointed out the difficulties in determining exactly who was a "known communist". Additionally, the law was ridiculed by pointing out that Confederates such as Robert E. Lee would have been prohibited from speaking because he advocated the overthrow of the United States government.

Legal challenge[edit]

After the bill had become law, many students, faculty, and administrators actively opposed the ban, seeing it as an attack on freedom of speech. In order to challenge the law, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill led by Student Body President Paul Dickson invited Herbert Aptheker and Frank Wilkinson to speak on the edge of the campus. As expected, the university refused to allow either of the speakers to give their speeches on campus. Instead, they addressed the assembled crowd from across the stone wall that separates the university from the town of Chapel Hill.

The university’s refusal to allow the men to speak on the physical campus was used as the basis for a lawsuit against the university and the State of North Carolina. On February 19, 1968, a three-judge federal district court in Greensboro deliberated for 10 minutes before declaring the Speaker Ban Law invalid due to vagueness.

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