University Day 2011 was observed with the dedication of a marker to the students who worked to get the infamous Speaker Ban Law repealed in the 1960s. The new marker to an enduring principle of freedom of speech sits on the stone wall between McCorkle Place and Franklin Street.
The granite marker with bronze plaques approximately 30 inches high and 30 inches wide is near the spot where in March 1966 two controversial speakers addressed students: Frank Wilkinson, who had invoked the Fifth Amendment before the House Un-American Activities Committee; and Herbert Aptheker, an avowed Communist. Both spoke to students across the wall while standing off University property.
The Speaker Ban Law forbade anyone known to be a member of the Communist Party or who had invoked the Fifth Amendment in investigation of Communists from speaking on the campuses of universities receiving state funds. It had been rushed through the N.C. General Assembly in June 1963 on the last day of the legislative session, with no notice to the University, or the governor, no committee hearings, no debate and no deliberation in the House or Senate.
The marker recognizes the student leaders who spoke out against the law and organized the protests, especially Student Body President Paul Dickson III ’66.
A public unveiling ceremony was held at the marker’s site at 3 p.m. on Oct. 12, University Day, followed by a reception in the Johnston Center.
Students played important roles in trying over a five-year period to get the Speaker Ban Law repealed, and the students and UNC administration wrestled over its enforcement. In 1968, a three-judge panel declared the law unconstitutional. The Legislature did not actually repeal the law until 1995.
The marker includes the names of 12 students who filed the lawsuit that led to the law being overturned as well as an inscription.
William B. Aycock ’37 (MA, ’48 JD), who was chancellor at Carolina from 1957 to 1964, talked to the Carolina Alumni Review in 2005 about the years of the speaker ban.
“I couldn’t conceive of calling yourself a university” and letting something such as this stand, he said.
The first he ever heard about the Speaker Ban Law was from his wife, Grace, who’d heard about it on the radio. “None of us ever saw the bill before it came along,” he said. “It wasn’t intended that we would have a chance.”
First he met with law school Dean Henry Brandis ’37 and John Sanders ’50, director of the Institute of Government. They concluded the fledgling law was thoroughly flawed and probably unconstitutional. Aycock prepared a speech to the trustees, and they approved a resolution that called for enforcing the law but also for working to have it repealed. “I won’t say it was 100 percent,” he said. “But the great majority saw the danger to the University.”
The trustees held meetings in five cities across the state, and Aycock went on the stump, giving memorable speeches and herding most of the state’s newspapers into the UNC camp.
He said he doesn’t know the origin of the term, “Little Speaker Ban” — what the law was called after the Legislature adopted the findings of the Britt Commission that put the onus for enforcing the law on the trustees of individual campuses. There was nothing little about it to him.
“We were still just as handicapped.” The Legislature had spoken on the matter, he said, and trustees would be loath to defy it.
But what that change did, he said, was to enable the students to make a move — the invitation to Wilkinson and Aptheker to speak on the campus, and the subsequent well-publicized spectacle of a speaker on the Chapel Hill sidewalk and a throng of students standing on UNC property listening. University officials did not think they were in a position to file a lawsuit over the matter. But soon, Paul Dickson, as student body president, made himself the plaintiff in the suit.
The speaker ban had dragged on for two and half years at that point, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools had called Carolina on the carpet about accreditation just before the Britt recommendations were adopted. Incidentally, the commission found “fewer than a dozen speakers from among the thousands who have appeared during these years were specifically mentioned as extremists and not all of them were alleged to be Communists. Among the students, not more than five were singled out as Communists.”
After Aycock had left the chancellorship in 1964 to return to teaching, he joined in the University’s testimony to the Britt Commission and continued to write and speak on the matter.
When a panel of three federal judges declared the law unconstitutional in 1968, its proponents fell silent.
When a photographer suggested to Aycock in 2005 that he pose near the rock wall along Franklin Street over which Aptheker spoke in 1966, he said, “I can’t go to the wall. That belongs to the students.”
Memorials on the grounds of the oldest part of the campus are rare — McCorkle Place is home to, notably, a monument to Joseph Caldwell, UNC’s first president; Silent Sam, which commemorates University people who died in Civil War service; and the most recent (2005), the Unsung Founders Memorial to slaves and free workers who helped build the campus.