State Board of Gov­er­nors may strip civil rights cen­ter’s abil­ity to file suits

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY MARTHA WAGGONER

RALEIGH, N.C. | A cen­ter founded at the Univer­sity of North Carolina by a civil rights at­tor­ney to help the poor and dis­en­fran­chised is the lat­est in­sti­tu­tion to come un­der fire from con­ser­va­tives as they work to leave their mark on the state’s higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

African-Amer­i­can at­tor­ney Julius Chambers, who en­dured fire­bomb at­tacks in the 1960s and 1970s as he fought se­gre­ga­tion, founded the UNC Cen­ter for Civil Rights in 2001, serv­ing as its first di­rec­tor.

Now con­ser­va­tives on the state Board of Gov­er­nors, which sets pol­icy for the 16-cam­pus sys­tem, want to strip the cen­ter of its abil­ity to file law­suits, re­mov­ing its big­gest weapon.

Pro­po­nents say the move isn’t ide­o­log­i­cal, but that the cen­ter’s court­room work strays from the ed­u­ca­tion mis­sion of the coun­try’s old­est pub­lic univer­sity. Crit­ics say one of the South’s lead­ing civil rights in­sti­tu­tions would be de­fanged.

The pro­posal is “strictly, cer­tainly and un­doubt­edly ide­o­log­i­cal,” Univer­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law pro­fes­sor Gene Ni­chol wrote via email.

Mr. Ni­chol headed UNC’s Cen­ter on Poverty, Work and Op­por­tu­nity, which the board closed two years ago by say­ing it didn’t serve its aca­demic mis­sion. It was one of about 25 UNC-af­fil­i­ated cen­ters shut­tered af­ter a re­view of the 240 cen­ters in the cam­pus sys­tem.

Those de­vel­op­ments fol­lowed a con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal takeover of North Carolina, launched in 2010 when Repub­li­cans took their first state House and Se­nate ma­jori­ties since the late 1800s.

Board mem­ber Steve Long said the cen­ter must re­fo­cus on its ed­u­ca­tion mis­sion, and “one of the things you say no to is pub­lic in­ter­est law firms.” He added, “free en­ter­prise, civil rights, pro­tec­tion of chil­dren’s rights — what­ever the cause it doesn’t mat­ter. Are you go­ing to stay on mis­sion as an ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion or not?”

One law­suit by the cen­ter al­leg­ing se­gre­ga­tion in Pitt County schools in eastern North Carolina es­pe­cially ran­kled Mr. Long. County of­fi­cials told Mr. Long they suc­cess­fully fought it with $500,000 from a text­book fund.

“This is out­ra­geous,” he said. “We can­not al­low aca­demic cen­ters to hire full­time lawyers to sue cities and coun­ties.”

The cen­ter has rep­re­sented dozens of North Carolina in­di­vid­u­als and groups over the years, of­ten suc­cess­fully, in fight­ing so­cial, eco­nomic and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. Its clients are too poor to af­ford rep­re­sen­ta­tion — their tar­gets are of­ten school dis­tricts, cities, coun­ties, even the state gov­ern­ment.

When Con­cerned Cit­i­zens for Suc­cess­ful Schools in John­ston County sought records prov­ing its poor and mi­nor­ity stu­dents weren’t get­ting equal ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties, the lo­cal school board balked. Last year the cen­ter sued and, within months, the records were de­liv­ered.

“The cen­ter gave our group cred­i­bil­ity be­cause we were just a group of con­cerned cit­i­zens,” said mem­ber Su­san Las­siter. “We are not the ACLU. We are not the NAACP. We are just cit­i­zens want­ing to im­prove our schools.”

Her group doesn’t have deep pock­ets and she now wor­ries about find­ing a civil rights at­tor­ney who is ex­pe­ri­enced in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion law and will work for free.

Con­cerned Cit­i­zens of Du­plin County, which claimed se­gre­ga­tion in a lo­cal schools fa­cil­ity pro­posal, is also both­ered by the pro­posal. Mem­ber Johnny Hollingsworth said the cen­ter was serv­ing its ed­u­ca­tion mis­sion: “I can’t think of a bet­ter way to train new lawyers than through prac­ti­cal, hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence.”

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