50th Anniversary Of The North Carolina Speaker Ban

Apr 10, 2013

UNC Student Body President Paul Dickson introduces speaker Frank Wilkinson at the McCorkle Place wall
Credit Jock Lauterer, unc.edu

Free speech is considered a hallmark of universities across the nation, but in the 1960s, that wasn't always true. At least not for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1963, the North Carolina legislature passed a speaker ban, prohibiting communists from speaking on campus.

Students on campus bristled at the notion that they could not listen to anybody they chose.

"All of us, really, as students, just thought it was ridiculous to claim that we were somehow going to be snookered by a Communist who came onto campus," said Bob Spearman, a Raleigh attorney and former student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Spearman said he never met a single person on campus in favor of the ban. It was imposed by the legislature over fears that Communist thought would infect the minds of young students. In addition to avowed Communists, anybody who had pled the fifth amendment with regard to communism and anybody who advocated the overthrow of the government were banned from campus.

Eventually, the Students for a Democratic Society challenged the speaker ban.

"SDS said, 'well, let's just go get a real live Communist and invite them to the campus," said Jerry Carr, an activist with SDS at the time.

Two speakers with Communist ties, Herbert Aptehker and Frank Wilkinson, were invited to campus to speak. While they weren't able to speak on campus, the rally moved to Franklin Street, where they spoke to gathered students. Eventually, students sued the chancellor and board of trustees and overthrew the ban.