The decade's most triggering comedy
Mike Walker, the Dean of Students at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, needs to resign immediately. Walker has the distinction of being the only dean of students in the nation to preside over a student affairs division that so egregiously violated student rights that the legislature has had to intervene on two separate occasions. I know this because I worked on both of those legislative bills that corrected unfair and unconstitutional practices here at UNCW. Despite all this, Walker is undermining a third more comprehensive piece of legislation I worked on with Rep. Chris Millis back in 2017. That bill was not specifically aimed at correcting abuses in Walker’s office. It was aimed at correcting abuses in the entire 17-campus UNC system. A little background information is in order.
When we passed HB527, a major objective was to rid the UNC system of unconstitutional speech codes and speech zones. But we also wanted to change the student culture and foster a greater understanding of core principles of free speech. Toward that end, the bill, which was based on a Goldwater Institute white paper, included the following language:
“It is not the proper role of any constituent institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment, including, without limitation, ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
The language in that bill is now state law that it appears dean Mike Walker is ignoring. But there is also other language in the bill that Walker seems to be disregarding. The following language applies to freshman orientation:
“All constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina shall include in freshman orientation programs a section describing the policies regarding free expression consistent with this Article.”
A recent case shows that UNCW is not following this directive. It began on May 17, when incoming UNCW student Jacob Henderson tweeted, “The left tries to correct rape through the murder of a child … how foolish.” This tweet is obviously an expression of support for a ban on abortion as well as an objection to a rape exception being applied to the ban. Such an opinion might be an unpopular minority view, but the First Amendment does not exist to protect the popular views of the majority.
Nonetheless, it appears that another incoming UNCW student read the tweet and decided it did not deserve constitutional protection. So she contacted Walker’s office with a complaint. If Walker had been following HB527, then his response should have been to simply remind her of the policies in HB527 that his office was supposed to teach her in freshman orientation. If I were Walker, I would have simply emailed the student with the following:
“It is not the proper role of the UNCW Dean of Students to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment, including, without limitation, ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
I might have also snail-mailed her a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution. It does not appear that Walker even considered doing that. Instead, Jacob Henderson received this email from Walker:
Hi Jacob. I just want to give you a heads up that UNCW has received a complaint about your social media exchanges. While UNCW does not take an official position on student on-line postings, and does in no way intend to censor students based on their perspectives, as we discussed during the Community Standards session at orientation, it is important for our students to treat others with dignity and respect, and to be mindful of how they characterize themselves on social media. So toward that end, please know that we have received a complaint and please consider refraining from engaging in any behavior on line that could call into question your conduct as a new member of our community.
Sincerely, and looking forward to your start here in August,
Dr. Mike Walker, dean of students.
When Jacob forwarded this to his father, David, he was outraged. David correctly concluded that no eighteen year old could receive an email from such a high-ranking UNCW official without being extremely intimidated. Having knowledge that the dean of students monitors your Twitter account clearly exerts a chilling effect on free speech. So David reached out to me. Of course, I was also outraged. But I was outraged for a different reason.
Take a moment to reread Walker’s email. It is clear that instead of teaching HB527 at student orientation, Walker’s student affairs division is teaching something different. Here’s what we learn from the email:
Obviously, there are a number of problems, here. But the real breakdown occurs on point #3. If a tweet that does not mention another student but merely offends them is deemed by the complainant to be a violation of some vague right to be treated with “dignity” and “respect” then there has been a total breakdown in the orientation process. Obviously, the student believes she has a right to be unoffended at all times, whether on campus or off. She certainly misses the point of HB527, about which she was supposed to be educated during the freshman orientation that is run by Walker’s office.
Walker’s statement that Jacob should “please consider refraining from engaging in any behavior on line that could call into question (his) conduct as a new member of our community” is frightening. The term “behavior” is a clear reference to Jacob’s past speech. Thus, it is a not-so-subtle demand for ideological conformity.
Furthermore, Walker’s statement that “UNCW does not take an official position on student on-line postings, and does in no way intend to censor students based on their perspectives” show that he knows damned good and well what he is doing. He is taking the offended student’s side. He is recommending self-censorship. And he needs to be stopped.
When I first worked with the North Carolina legislature in 2013, it was to pass a bill to stop Walker’s office from holding expulsion hearings in which students were questioned about criminal behavior and barred from having an attorney present. A second bill in 2014 was initiated after Walker’s office tried to pressure a Christian group into abdicating its religious belief requirements as a condition for official recognition.
In 2017, as I stated previously, HB527 took aim, not at UNCW specifically, but at an entire university system that was out of control. But is it any surprise that the first school I have found to be ignoring the law is UNCW?
In light of his abysmal record on student rights, I wish Mike Walker had the decency to resign. I also wish UNCW President Jose Sartarelli had the courage to fire him.
Regrettably, there is no evidence to suggest that decency and courage are among UNCW’s Community Standards.