Midway through their recent op-ed explaining why they made the Silent Sam deal, five members of the UNC Board of Governors revealed there was also a side agreement that is in some ways more outrageous than the main one.
The main deal, of course, was settling a lawsuit filed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) by giving the group $2.5 million in university funds to take ownership and care for the statue of a Confederate soldier known as “Silent Sam.” Presumably, the group would use the money to display the statue somewhere far from the UNC Chapel Hill campus, where it had become the focus of protests and was toppled in August 2018.
But the authors disclosed there was a second payment. They wrote: “We also agreed that the SCV would sign a separate agreement limiting its ability to display flags and banners on university campuses, in exchange for a payment of $74,999. This agreement addressed the possibility that the consent order might not be approved, in which case the SCV agreed that it would not sponsor events on any of our campuses for five years.”
At the University of North Carolina campus, protesters can now be given university funds to keep quiet? Does the Board of Governors — the ruling body of one of the nation’s top university systems — not understand that universities are about free speech, not paid silence?
The five who struck the deal — Jim Holmes, Darrell Allison, Wendy Murphy, Anna Nelson and Bob Rucho — would argue that the side deal wasn’t about free speech. It was about public safety, and perhaps equally important, public relations. The group marching on campus with Confederate battle flags was provoking counter-protests that could turn violent. And even if they did not, protests by a group celebrating the defenders of slavery was not a good look for the Chapel Hill campus.
So the board members offered money to stop the SCV protests and the full board approved the deal. Indeed they may well have paid more, but under state law any payment over $75,000 would need the approval of state Attorney General Josh Stein. Thus, $74,999.
This payment confirms two things. First, the board knew the settlement with the SCV — a settlement filed immediately after the lawsuit — might be legally suspect. It’s unclear whether the Confederate group has legal standing to sue for possession of Silent Sam since it has no clear claim of ownership. But the board wanted the lawsuit to stand. It would end demands to put the statue back up on campus and it would mollify Silent Sam’s supporters since the statue would be in sympathetic hands and erected elsewhere.
Second, the negotiators and then almost all of the board endorsed an effort to conceal the deal by keeping the payment to the Confederate group from being scrutinized by the attorney general. That subterfuge deserves a review by the attorney general for misappropriation of funds.
The Board of Governors’ clumsy and possibly illegal handling of the Silent Sam issue raises additional concerns about how it has handled other issues involving appointments, contracts and payments. The governor, the attorney general and the state auditor should conduct full reviews of how the two Silent Sam deals evolved and whether they violated state polices or laws.
Under normal circumstances, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore would be expected to join the push for accountability. But they are the architects of his mess. They appointed the board members based on who donated to Republicans and could be reliably expected to carry out their wishes. They also pushed through a 2015 law that protects Confederate monuments. Complying with the law led to the Board of Governors’ paying a Confederate group.
As the details of these outrageous payments become clear, Moore and Berger are as silent as statues.
Today’s editorial is from the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer of Raleigh. The views expressed are not necessarily those of this newspaper.