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Protesters say university is exercising a double standard on free speech by absolving employee with alleged white supremacy links

NC State University (Photo by hyku [2] is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Melanie Flowers had a lot to do this week, and a protest was yet another item on her list. The student body president at N.C. State University was beginning classes, juggling her studies and student government commitments in an ongoing pandemic that makes everything harder.

“There’s … a lot going on,” she said Wednesday evening, before heading into a late student Senate meeting.

Still, she and her student government colleagues organized a protest on campus [3] when the university announced it would take no action [4] against an employee, Chadwick Seagraves, accused of harassing a student online, exposing Black Lives Matters protesters’ personal information on right-wing forums and having ties to the violent Proud Boys organization [5].

“I can’t believe it’s even necessary,” Flowers said of the protest. “I hope that at some point we’ll get to the point where students will look back on this protest and say, ‘Dang, they had to work for that? They had to protest for that?’”

For Flowers, the case against Seagraves is clear. 

There are photos and video of Seagraves allegedly fraternizing with prominent white supremacist figures [6],

Chadwick Jason Seagraves in 2017 after he was arrested on charges of driving while impaired (Photo: Wake County Jail)

introducing one at a Chapel Hill rally in 2017 where the audience was pitched on joining the Proud Boys [5] and its explicitly militant arm, the Alt-Knights [8]. 

A lawsuit filed last year names Seagraves in the release of sensitive information about liberal activists in Oregon and North Carolina [9]. It cites alleged connections between his name to online pseudonyms used to tout his affiliations, post racist, homophobic and transphobic messages; and communicate with extremists who discuss violence against their perceived enemies.

If that doesn’t violate the school’s stated values of diversity, inclusion, equality and respect, Flowers wondered, then what does?

More than 2,700 people have signed a petition calling on the university to fire Seagraves [10] from his job in technology services support. After this month’s violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, for which Proud Boys members and other militant supporters of former President Donald Trump now face charges, the urgency over the issue only grew.

But the university said it didn’t find that Seagraves violated any laws or university policies. Seagraves issued a statement to The News & Observer denying he was ever a Proud Boy and maintained that he didn’t hold racist beliefs. He dismissed the allegations against him as “heinous slander.”

“As a public institution, we are bound by the U.S. Constitution and the laws and policies set by the state of North Carolina,” N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson said in a statement [11]. “All employees and students have First Amendment protections that must be upheld, and even speech many of us consider hateful can be protected [12]. In other words, we may not be able to discipline employees or students solely on the basis of their speech or expression, even when we find them in opposition to the university’s deeply held values.” 

N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson

But students, faculty and free speech advocates say Seagraves’s case is the latest to raise the question of whether the UNC System and its campuses are equally committed to protecting speech across the political spectrum.

A history of unequal treatment?

The last few years of tumultuous protests on campuses and across the country have elicited a lot of discussion of free speech within the UNC system. Theoretically, the same First Amendment protections Seagraves enjoys should apply to those who oppose his ideology. But the UNC system’s track record on applying those protections equally was spotty well before the Seagraves case at N.C. State.

During the long struggle over the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill, campus police attempted to infiltrate the movement against the statue with an undercover officer [14]. Officers also confiscated canned food donated at a food drive as potential weaponry and the department published an editorial blasting the protesters as bent on destroying “campus authority.”

Armed neo-Confederate protesters wearing white supremacist symbols, in contrast, were photographed shaking hands with officers [15], who politely advised them of the law against guns on campus but made no arrests.

The marked difference is in line with a recent study conducted by the U.S. Crisis Monitor which found police are three times as likely to use violence [16] when dealing with protesters on the left than those from the political right.

At public meetings of the Republican dominated UNC Board of Governors, students who have protested system policies have been denied seats or even access to the office buildings where they are held [17]. Conservative activists and lobbyists, in contrast, have met no such resistance.

The board of governors has also welcomed prominent conservative professors to discuss how to replicate private university programs touted as important beachheads for conservative thought [18]. 

Conversely, it has hobbled a number of UNC centers loathed by the political right. That includes the shuttering [19] of UNC’s Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity, North Carolina Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change and East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity as well as the barring of the UNC Center for Civil Rights from participating in litigation [20].

Most dramatically, UNC-Wilmington struggled ineffectively for decades with firebrand conservative professor Mike Adams [21], through lawsuits and repeated controversies over his sexist, racist, homophobic and Islamophobic writing and speech.

Last summer, after nearly 30 years, the school negotiated a settlement in which Adams was paid more than $500,000 to retire early. Shortly thereafter Adams, whose frequent posts on social media had for months become angrier and replete with references to guns and violence, shot and killed himself. [22]

Where’s the line?

Adams’s case at UNCW has dark resonances with Seagraves’s at N.C. State.

In the statement to The News & Observer [23], Seagraves portrayed himself as persecuted by liberal enemies for his conservative political beliefs. It’s a frequent complaint voiced by many figures on the political right, from former President Trump to founders and leaders of the Proud Boys arrested in connection with the failed insurrection in Washington D.C.

“I have been subjected to an organized campaign of slander composed of outright lies, half truths, and out of context claims initiated by anonymous anarchists and “antifascists” that is designed to punish me and suppress my right to political expression using intimidation and the Heckler’s veto with the intent to destroy my career and reputation,” Seagraves wrote.

Adams for years took the same line in columns, online posts and speeches at various universities. Dismissing his prejudicial statements against women, LGBTQ people and racial and ethnic minorities, he portrayed white Christian conservatives as under attack by liberals, universities and the government.

With the help of a deep-pocketed conservative group to pay his legal fees, Adams successfully sued UNCW for denying him a promotion, which deterred the school from waging future legal fights with him. University leaders condemned his statements and actions for years, but said they were powerless to do anything about them.

Adams’s support on the political right did not waiver, even when he declared in online posts that a civil war was already under way in America and encouraged people to arm themselves and overthrow the government. In death, some conservatives have declared him a free speech martyr harassed to an early grave by liberal persecution.

UNC System leaders, who had to approve the final settlement with Adams, did not speak out on his behavior even as they made the distinction between protected speech and inciting violence a frequent point of conversation in university governance.

Though the university repeatedly condemned Adams’s views and statement, there was a constant conflict between creating a safe on-campus environment based on shared values and honoring speech it considered repugnant as protected under the First Amendment. That tension, between protecting politically volatile speech and the creation of a hostile work environment, may again be at play in the Seagraves case.

“Generally, the government may not punish a government employee for speech or political associations they engage in as a private citizen,” said Brooks Fuller, Director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition [24]. “The reason the Supreme Court has drawn this line is to protect vulnerable public employees from retaliation by the government for their speech. As long as the employee’s speech and conduct stay separate from their government work, the First Amendment protections for speech and political associations are very strong.”

N.C. State said it couldn’t independently substantiate claims that Seagraves, using an online pseudonym, harassed an N.C. State student or released personal information on activists in North Carolina and Oregon that led to online threats against them. If such allegations could be substantiated, Fuller said, that may cross the line.

“Those First Amendment protections would not extend to any conduct or communication that rises to the level of harassment or creation of a hostile work environment,” Fuller said.

For Daniel Doughterty, a physics professor at N.C. State, the question of what constitutes a hostile or unsafe environment on campus became more pressing after this month’s violence at the U.S. Capitol. If university employees are promoting and associating with groups whose members engage in acts of violence and domestic terror, he said, how long does the university need to wait before taking some action?

“In Washington you saw a real time example of what happens when you ignore hate groups,” Dougherty said. “They released this statement about ending the [Seagraves] investigation so soon after you saw that…it’s a totally obvious conclusion that should have impacted the investigation in some way. There’s a tendency to just fall back on free speech arguments when dealing with these people and these groups. That’s not a viable strategy, long term.”

“When you have people affiliated with hate groups on campus, it’s not clear you have the climate you need to accomplish your educational mission,” Dougherty said.

The challenge for the university is to protect free speech and make clear what it’s values are and the environment it wishes to create, Fuller said.

“Fortunately, the First Amendment also protects the speech of people who disagree with the university’s response,” to the Seagraves case, Fuller said.

“The people have every right to continue to express their frustration with the university and to demand accountability,” he said. “The university may not punish individual employees for their private speech, but it bears responsibility for creating systems and a university culture that is boldly anti-racist. I hope the university takes that challenge seriously long after this controversy is resolved.”

Flowers, the student body president, said she remains frustrated with the university response but still believes in the values of N.C. State. She continues to talk with the administration and with students about how to make those values real every day, she said.

“We are continuing to talk about how to prepare the N.C. State community for moving forward in a world and in our community, which has people who aren’t quite there yet on the inclusion spectrum,” Flowers said. “But we’re at a point where we can have these conversations now. I can have conversations with my white colleagues about this, about this environment and what is wrong with it, what we have to do. And they understand. That didn’t happen 20 or 30 years ago. So there is progress.”