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Prominent North Carolina Civil Rights Center Banned from Engaging in Civil Rights Litigation

In a 24-3 vote last week, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors (BOG), which determines the rules and regulations for the University of North Carolina (UNC) system, barred the UNC Chapel Hill School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights from engaging in civil rights litigation for minority and low-income communities.

The UNC Center for Civil Rights, founded in 2001 by Julius Chambers, was in part founded to “ensure that future generations of attorneys are equipped to continue the ongoing campaign to secure fair and equal opportunities for minority and low-income people,” according to the Center’s website. The Center for Civil Rights offers fellowships, internships, and externships in addition to pro bono opportunities for students who are interesting in pursuing civil rights law and social justice.

Director of the Center for Civil Rights Ted Shaw stated the vote “is an ideological attack on those who train and provide representation in civil rights matters, full stop.” Before joining the UNC Center for Civil Rights, Shaw served as the President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and litigated civil rights cases in appellate courts and the United States Supreme Court. Shaw taught Constitutional and Civil Rights law at the University of Michigan Law School. He was instrumental in the Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action admissions policies at the University of Michigan.

Shaw went on to say that in the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, now “is not the time – if there ever is one – to cut back on mechanisms to enforce civil rights and fight against discrimination.”

The UNC Center for Civil Rights has represented low-income and minorities communities in civil rights proceedings and is widely considered to be a major contributor to civil rights advocacy work in North Carolina. The Center has ligated on school segregation, equal housing, and environmental hazards. The Center is funded exclusively through grants and other private sources and therefore does not using tax-payer money to pursue civil rights litigation.

The UNC Board of Governors is comprised of 30 members who were elected by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. In 2015, the UNC Board of Governors voted to close the UNC Center on Poverty, Work, and Community which conducted research and advocated for policies that would lessen poverty in the state of North Carolina. The Center on Poverty, Work, and Community was exclusively funded by grants and received no state funding. After the BOG voted to close the Center on Poverty, the UNC School of Law opened the NC Poverty Research Fund to continue this critical and much needed work.

Members of the Board of Governors struggled to justify their vote to bar the Center for Civl Rights from litigating by claiming the Center failed to provide education benefits and should not be permitted to litigate against government bodies. Comments made by UNC System President and Board of Governors Chairman demonstrated minimal knowledge of the center and how it operates. The vote effectively prohibits all entities within the UNC system from litigating, but the Center for Civil Rights is the only UNC center that participates in litigation.

Media Resources: Inside Higher Ed 9/11/17, The Nation 9/11/17; Washington Post 2/19/15

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