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Judge Voids Deal Giving UNC Statue To Confederate Group

In August 2018, protesters toppled Confederate statue "Silent Sam" on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.
Jasmin Herrera
In August 2018, protesters toppled Confederate statue "Silent Sam" on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.

RALEIGH — The fate of a Confederate statue torn down by protesters was thrown back into uncertainty Wednesday when a judge overturned a settlement by the University of North Carolina's governing board that gave the monument to a Confederate heritage group along with money to preserve it.

Judge Allen Baddour ruled in Orange County court that the Sons of Confederate Veterans didn’t have standing to bring the lawsuit that led to the hastily arranged deal that gave them possession of the statue known as Silent Sam, along with $2.5 million to maintain it. He vacated the settlement and dismissed the underlying lawsuit brought by the SCV.

Critics had questioned how the deal was quietly struck between the Confederate group and the UNC Board of Governors in a way that allowed the lawsuit and settlement to be filed in quick succession and then approved by Baddour just before Thanksgiving.

Silent Sam stood on the Chapel Hill campus for more than 100 years until protesters toppled it in August 2018. Critics say the statue symbolized racism and white supremacist views, while supporters argue it honored the memory of ancestors who died in the Civil War.

A group of students had challenged the settlement in court. Baddour ruled last December that the students couldn't intervene in the case, but he wanted to hear more from the statewide governing board and the Confederate heritage group about whether the group had standing to file the lawsuit in the first place.

To argue the deal was valid, the board and the ancestry group referred to the statue's origins and argued that the Sons of Confederate Veterans were essentially the successors to the people who led the effort to erect the statue that was dedicated in 1913. The United Daughters of the Confederacy had raised money for the statue and gave the monument to the university on the condition that it stand as a permanent memorial, said Ripley Rand, a lawyer for the university governing board. After the statue was torn down, the group first asked for the statue back, but then transferred their property rights to the Sons of Confederate Veterans last year, Rand said.

Rand said the university governing board moved quickly to reach an agreement with the SCV because it could have otherwise taken years to resolve a lawsuit.

“The time and uncertainty and the risk involved in waiting on a court to decide these issues was unacceptable to the Board of Governors," he said, adding: “The message that the Board of Governors received from the university community was clear: ‘We do not want the monument back on campus.’”

Boyd Sturges, an attorney for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said his clients had a valid claim to ownership, and thus had standing in court, though he acknowledged the issue was complicated. He also acknowledged not everyone was happy with the settlement.

“My clients’ ultimate issue is honoring the dead from that era,” he told Baddour.

But Baddour rejected the arguments. Ruling from the bench, he said a written order would follow, because he had waited to hear the oral arguments before making up his mind.

Sturges said after the hearing that his client would honor the court’s ruling. He said his group has possession of the statue and would need to figure out how to return it to the university. He declined to say where it’s being stored.

Similarly, Rand said in a statement that the university governing board also respects Baddour’s decision and “will go back to work” on a lasting solution.

Baddour’s ruling marks the latest development in a long and fraught debate within the campus community about what to do with the statue, and more widely, whether Confederate monuments belong on campuses at all. While the conversation stretched back decades, protests around the UNC statue intensified in the aftermath of a deadly white supremacist rally in Virginia in 2017.

After Silent Sam was torn down, the university and statewide Board of Governors spent more than a year grappling with what to do with the monument. During that time, the Chapel Hill chancellor resigned and the campus police chief who oversaw the response to statue’s toppling retired.

Further complicating the decision-making is a 2015 North Carolina state law restricting the removal of Confederate monuments.

While it’s unclear what will happen to the statue, the legal group that represented the students in challenging the settlement cheered Baddour’s ruling. Kristen Clarke, executive director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement: “This is a victory for students and faculty across the University of North Carolina System and for the people of North Carolina who viewed this settlement as fraudulent and the transfer of financing to be in direct conflict with the university's mission,”