The University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill has dropped honor court charges against sexual assault survivor Landen Gambill, a student who was accused of harassment and intimidation toward her alleged assailant. The case had become a tense standoff between campus administrators and advocates who have accused the university of retaliation against Gambill’s involvement in a Title IX complaint.
“Honor System charges involving this provision of the Honor Code, including the case in question, will be dismissed,” wrote UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp. “This action is not a challenge to the important role of students in our Honor System, but is intended to protect the free speech rights of our students.”
"It was unconstitutional for the UNC to ban speech that would be protected by the First Amendment under this Code," William Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told Campus Progress. "The Landen Gambill case so clearly illustrated that the Code could be used to silence student speakers."
The harassment charges were originally filed against Gambill in early February by her alleged assailant, who had been found not guilty of assaulting Gambill the year before by UNC’s Honor Court, a student organization with little formal training in the nuances of sexual assault. The charges also came just weeks after Gambill, two other university students, a UNC alumnus, and a former assistant dean filed a Title IX compliant against the university with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, accusing UNC of underreporting sexual assaults and violating the rights of survivors to seek justice.
UNC was initially adamant that the actions of the student-run Honor Court were in no way influenced or controlled by the administration—a claim that seemed incongruous with the university’s own Honor Code, which specifically lists the administrative members who are responsible for decisions made by the Court. A month later, the administration suspended the charges pending against Gambill just a day after she filed a second complaint with the OCR in which she alleged that UNC had retaliated against her by allowing the charges to proceed.
An external review was launched into UNC’s handling of the case, and while the lead investigator found no evidence of retaliation on behalf of the university, the section of the Honor Code Gambill was accused of violating was found to be constitutionally tenuous and possibly in violation of the First Amendment.
In the Honor Code, they found, harassment and intimidation are so vaguely defined that they could be applied to a large number of student behaviors and speech, including those which are constitutionally protected.
"Unless you have a harassment code that is specific and precise, and matches the Supreme Court’s definition of harassment in the educational context, you’re going to have a code that prohibits protected speech, and that code will be used eventually to crack down on speech that you support," Creeley said. "It’s important to remember that the First Amendment protects all kinds of speech, and that threats to one person’s First Amendment speech are threats to everybody’s First Amendment speech."