Understanding institutional neutrality

In July 2023, a new law went into effect in North Carolina requiring UNC System institutions to remain neutral on any political controversies.

As a public university, UNC Charlotte respects and adheres to all state laws and mandates by the UNC System. UNC Charlotte also is committed to sustaining a campus environment that embraces different perspectives and fosters respectful dialogue while ensuring that all members of the University community are treated with respect, fairness and dignity.

Jesh Humphrey, vice chancellor for institutional integrity and general counsel, explains what the law means for the University and its faculty, staff and students, and what support resources are available to members of the campus community.

Can you provide more context to this provision in N.C. Senate Bill 195 and what it means for universities, including UNC Charlotte, to maintain neutrality?

The bill implements a concept known as “institutional neutrality,” which requires the University–and University officials when speaking in their official capacities–to refrain from taking specific political stances on controversial issues. The goal of institutional neutrality is to promote the open exchange of ideas on campus by ensuring that schools don’t inhibit dissenting opinions. Members of the campus community will be more inclined to research controversial subjects and express their views without worrying that those subjects and views run counter to a political position held by the University or any of its departments.

How is this different from previous state laws?

The prior law prohibited UNC System schools from taking any action that would require students, staff or faculty to express a particular view on controversial issues. The new law goes a step further by prohibiting the University from expressing any official views of its own on those issues.

How does this law affect an employee or student’s ability to state their personal opinion on a topic or issue?

The new law means that UNC Charlotte employees should refrain from making any statement that takes a position on a controversial issue on behalf of the University or through University social media accounts or the UNC Charlotte website.

However, the First Amendment protects the right of all students and employees to express their personal opinions. As has always been the case, when our faculty and staff express a personal opinion, they should make it clear they are speaking as citizens and not as representatives of UNC Charlotte, and take care that their speech doesn’t compromise the neutrality, efficiency or integrity of the University or any University department or unit.

Faculty members are also entitled to academic freedom in the classroom when discussing issues related to their course, including controversial topics, but should be careful not to introduce controversial topics that are unrelated to the curriculum.

Because students rarely speak as official representatives of UNC Charlotte, the law should have little to no impact on our student body.

And, of course, all members of the University community should always strive to uphold UNC Charlotte’s guiding commitments by ensuring what they say is accurate and shows appropriate respect for the opinions of others.

In a rapidly evolving world with diverse viewpoints, there can be situations or issues that are distressing to members of the campus community. If the University cannot issue a statement, can it still support faculty, staff and students’ well-being?

Absolutely. The health and well-being of our campus community is always our top concern. Regardless of an individual’s beliefs, the University has resources to help support them as they process painful or difficult emotions and experiences. Some of the most common support offices are:

  • For Employees

If employees have questions about institutional neutrality, who should they contact?

Any employee with questions should reach out to the Office of Legal Affairs by emailing legal-affairs@charlotte.edu or by using the contact form on the University’s free speech website.