Attack on UNC Center for Civil Rights: Even worse than it looks

Attack on UNC Center for Civil Rights: Even worse than it looks

The optics, as they say, are terrible. But in a state whose motto is “To Be Rather Than to Seem,” it’s even more important to look at the substance.

And the substance is worse.

Think about it: In a Southern state where the legacy of race discrimination and its attendant social ills remains starkly visible, our leading public law school is on the verge of being forced to abandon the courtrooms where the struggles for civil rights have so often played out.

Conservative ideologues now clustering among the leaders of the University of North Carolina system don’t want law professors or students at the UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill to be able to pursue civil rights cases in court, or to act as counsel for the aggrieved. As many have remarked, that’s akin to forbidding medical students, guided by their faculty mentors, from treating actual patients, or prospective teachers from training in real classrooms.

The proposed ban on civil rights representation involving new clients is misguided not only in stripping the law school of a valuable teaching tool. It also would deprive many North Carolinians of perhaps their only reasonable chance to confront discrimination on the job or in the community with the benefit of legal counsel.

It would decouple the school, its parent university and indeed the entire university system from efforts to combat injustices that continue to afflict thousands of our fellow residents.

It would represent a shocking surrender to forces on the benighted right who either don’t recognize those injustices or are just as happy to perpetuate them.

The target of the anti-litigation push emanating from the UNC Board of Governors is the UNC law school’s Center for Civil Rights. The whole school has been in a bad odor among the General Assembly’s majority Republicans, who especially resent the drumbeat of criticism focused on them in recent years by law professor Gene Nichol. It was Nichol, then the school’s dean, who recruited civil rights icon Julius Chambers  to lead the center upon its founding in 2001.

In their fury at Nichol, the center’s enemies would demean the life’s work of Chambers – one of the nation’s top civil rights attorneys and one of the most honored of all North Carolinians upon his death four years ago (he retired from the center in 2010).

Inevitably, they would draw widespread attention to a shift – call it a regression – in the law school’s aims and priorities. It would devolve from a place where civil rights advocacy was a signature commitment to one where such advocacy would be hamstrung in many ways, but especially by lack of access to the courts.

Idealists wanted

That might carry some appeal within the ranks of conservatives who decry liberal influences within higher education. But it also would signal that when it comes to fighting for the advance of civil rights, the UNC law school would no longer help lead the charge.

What a turn-off for the bright young idealists whom we should be eager to attract to the practice of law and glad to nurture at a publicly supported school.

What a shortsighted rejection of opportunities for practical experience that could both inspire up-and-coming lawyers and train them in the nitty-gritty of civil rights work.

Since taking supermajority control in 2013, legislative Republicans have purged Democrats from the UNC Board of Governors and tried to weed out pockets of liberal activism, real or imagined.

The system’s Democratic president, Tom Ross, was ousted for no reason anyone could articulate other than that board members wanted a change. They hired Margaret Spellings, who had been the U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, it went after Nichol – nothing imaginary about his activism – with a vengeance. The law professor by then was directing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The board pulled the plug on the center in 2015. Nichol retained his law faculty post, pivoting to head the N.C. Poverty Research Fund (financed without state money, as was the poverty center and as is the civil rights center). He has continued to rip the legislature for a host of policies disadvantageous to the state’s poor, and his well-aimed blasts have pierced conservative hides.

Now a Board of Governors panel has voted 5-1 to recommend that the Center for Civil Rights be barred from taking on further clients, including those whose cases could be brought to court. The full board will consider the matter in September.

Spellings, if she wished, could stand against the change and perhaps convince some policy-makers on the board to hold fire. But, as reported by WRAL, her public reaction to the panel’s Aug. 1 decision was disappointing. While affirming what she said were the university system’s overall commitments to civil rights and “experiential” learning, she shied away from specifically defending the center’s mission and methods. It has to be hoped that she’ll do some “‘splainin’” to her fellow Republicans behind the scenes.

Beyond the classroom

The center operates with a director, currently law professor Ted Shaw, and two staff attorneys who counsel clients and oversee cases. Giving law students experience in the civil rights field is a key objective.

Students, serving as interns or volunteers, “conduct discovery, they interview witnesses, they draft briefs and memorandums, they prepare us for oral arguments,” staff attorney Elizabeth Haddix told WRAL. And despite grumbling among critics on the UNC board, opportunities for that kind of hands-on experience are virtually standard at well-regarded law schools. No wonder.

The critics’ bottom line seems to be that the law school ought to confine itself to teaching people about the law, not actually practicing law, as it essentially does via the center. What must really bother these folks as they look down their noses from their seats of influence is that the center seeks fair treatment for the downtrodden and dispossessed while holding the privileged and powerful to account. They conveniently overlook the fact that public service, along with teaching and research, lies at the core of the university system’s mission.

Over time, the center has done its part to address discrimination in public schools, the workplace, housing and voting rights. That discrimination has of course fallen most heavily on people of color and the poor. The center has stood for environmental justice – the principle that poor people shouldn’t be placed at the mercy of pollution from industry or waste disposal.

It should come as no surprise that the Council of Churches’ own commitment to equality of opportunity and fair treatment under the law – a commitment that flows from our understanding of our obligations to one another – leads us to champion the work of the Center for Civil Rights.

If conservative dogma and partisan spite combine to drag the center down, the Council and its allies won’t take that as a signal to abandon their own civil rights advocacy. Far from it. Too much is at stake, and we will carry on.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.