In 2011, North Carolina’s Brunswick County rezoned a parcel of land with the intention of expanding a landfill. The land in question lay in Royal Oak, a predominantly African-American neighborhood named for the swamp that previously occupied the area. The neighborhood was already home to a handful of polluting facilities that served the majority-white county, including other landfills, a waste-transfer station, and a sewage-treatment facility. A local citizens’ association sued, alleging that the rezoning reflected a pattern of racially discriminatory land-use decisions. They were represented by the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina’s law school.
On Friday, the board that governs UNC voted to prohibit academic centers within the its system from engaging in litigation, a decision that effectively muzzles the Center for Civil Rights. (No other center in the UNC system is currently involved in litigation.) Founded by the late civil-rights icon Julius Chambers, the center gives law students real-world litigation experience, while providing legal representation to poor and minority communities like Royal Oak. Over the years the center has taken on various cases against local and state authorities—often concerning housing, education, and environmental justice—much to the irritation of the state’s conservative leaders. The center rankled one member of UNC’s Board of Governors in particular: Steve Long, a lawyer who at the time of the Royal Oaks case was partner at a firm that represented Brunswick County at planning board hearings related to the proposed landfill expansion. (Ultimately the county lost the Royal Oaks case and, instead of expanding the landfill, built a school on the site.)
[Update: After publication, Steve Long contacted The Nation to clarify that he was not personally involved in the Royal Oaks case, and was not aware that his former firm had represented Brunswick County until this year. The article has been updated to clarify that Parker Poe, Long’s former firm, represented Brunswick County at planning board hearings; another firm led the legal defense.]
Long is a former board member of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank connected to North Carolina’s Republican kingmaker Art Pope. Civitas and a number of other Pope-funded organizations have sought for years to remake UNC, long one of America’s most prestigious and accessible public-university systems. As I reported in 2015, they’ve been aided by the Board of Governors, an “overwhelmingly” white, Republican body appointed by the North Carolina state legislature. In recent years the board has pushed through a number of startling changes to the UNC system, from firing a popular UNC president to capping spending on financial aid, while raising the salaries of top administrators. The board has also shown an appetite for suppressing certain types of academic inquiry, shuttering academic centers dedicated to poverty and economic justice, biodiversity, civic engagement, and now, possibly, civil rights.