The Law Causing Confusion Over What Can Happen to 'Silent Sam'

Dec 14, 2018

 

In the months after Silent Sam, a Confederate monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, was torn down by protesters, the University has been trying to decide what to do with it.

But even if they wanted to keep the statue off campus, officials say they couldn't.

The controversy surrounding Silent Sam has been bubbling for years and intensified in the past year, culminating with the statue getting pulled down in August by protesters.

The University’s Board of Trustees recommended last week that the UNC System’s Board of Governors build a $5.3 million education center to house the statue.

So far, administrators, faculty and the board of governors haven’t been able to agree about what to do with Silent Sam. Should the statue stay? Should it go? And now, this new proposal from the campus’s board of trustees.

At the center of this indecision is a law passed in 2015 by the NC General Assembly. It states that no object of remembrance can be removed or permanently relocated without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission.

If an object is temporarily removed, it must be relocated within 90 days. If it’s permanently relocated, it must be moved to a site of similar prominence and visibility within the same jurisdiction.

That’s the crux of the problem.

Portions of the law are vague, and, according to Harry Watson who was a member of the NC Historical Commission when the law passed, confusing.

“I think it’s a rather carelessly drafted law,” Watson said. “[Thursday] morning I was reading it closely again and discovered a spot where it’s not even grammatical.”

Watson says at the time, he and others on the commission didn’t think that determining where to place monuments should be their responsibility.

“I know I thought that local governments and local institutions like the University ought to be able to decide where their own monuments go,” Watson said.

Three years after the law was passed, its influence has been profound, stopping Governor Roy Cooper from moving three Confederate monuments off the state capitol grounds and freezing the movement of any others in North Carolina.

After the University presented its plan for a new building to house the statue, some members of the board of governors say the plan is illegal. One of them, Thom Goolsby, made a YouTube video saying he’d vote against the proposal.

“What we have now is a situation of just cowardice,” Goolsby said in the video. “Where instead of putting Silent Sam back up as the law requires, they’re attempting to misread the law and ask the board of Governors to move the statue to give approval for its removal.”

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees say they’re required to keep the statue on campus, but they think putting it on the same pedestal at the entrance of the University would pose a threat to student safety.

That’s why they want to put it in a new building - but not just any building.

The plan would place Silent Sam into what they’re calling an education center that would contextualize the statue along with other objects from UNC history.

Another part of the monuments law prohibits objects of remembrance that weren’t initially placed in a museum or cemetery to be moved to one.

Eric Muller, a distinguished professor in UNC’s School of Law, said the way the chancellor and board of trustees hope to get around that is by making the new building purposefully not a museum.

“By saying that this structure, even though to my eyes it looks like a museum, and sounds like a museum, it smells like a museum, isn’t actually a museum,” Muller said. “It’s an education center.”

Muller isn’t sure about the arguments either side has been making.

“The truth of the matter, I think, is that these questions are really not legal questions at all,” Muller said. “They’re political questions.”

If the law had been challenged in court, he says, lawyers and judges would make determinations on what the law is really saying.

But instead, each group has been picking at the law to support its side. And because of that, there’s been no easy resolution.