Behind the Daily Tar Heel’s lawsuit over Silent Sam

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Last week, UNC Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, filed a lawsuit against the UNC System and the Board of Governors alleging they violated the Open Meetings Act during settlement negotiations with the Sons of Confederate Veterans over possession of the Silent Sam monument. 

The Silent Sam monument was a statue dedicated to fallen confederate soldiers from the Daughters of Confederate Veterans group. It stood on UNC’s campus from 1913 until August 2018, when student protestors tore it down after calling for its removal following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. What followed was more than a year of uncertainty over what to do with statue, prompting multiple proposals that drew campus opposition. To find a solution, the Board of Governors assigned a five-person committee to determine a plan. 

In November, the UNC System agreed to pay the Sons group $74,999 to forfeit their first amendment rights on UNC System campuses for five years, and fund a $2.5 million trust to the preservation of the monument, provided it wasn’t placed in the 14 counties that have UNC System campuses. The Daily Tar Heel is seeking to void the settlement, contending that the committee’s private negotiations with the should have been subject to public record by law. 

“The lawsuit isn’t about anyone’s feelings on the deal or what we think should be done with Silent Sam,” says Charlie McGee, a senior Business Journalism major who leads the investigative reporting team at the student paper. He has been the main beat reporter covering the Silent Sam saga. “This agreement should have been made in a transparent way that followed the law, as far as documentation and the sequence of events goes. The settlement could have been completely different, they could have settled for $1, but it was a violation of the law and trust in the system.” McGee says the scale of the public interest and opinion about the matter should have warranted greater transparency from the governing bodies. 

The decision to file a lawsuit was made by Erica Perel, the paper’s general manager, and the student co-editors. 

But lawsuits require deep pockets, and it’s no secret journalism is a struggling industry. The DTH is one of the few independent student newspapers in the nation, meaning they receive no financial backing from the university. To cut costs, the paper has reduced its print circulation to five days per week and moved to a less-expensive property on Franklin Street. 

The Daily Tar Heel uses the 1893 Brand Studio, which acts as their marketing arm for advertisements and classifieds. They’ve also turned to fundraising, using the journalism-crowdfunding platform startthepresses.org, rather than opting for a subscription-based model that would likely be unpopular with students. 

McGee says this sort of controversial reporting has boosted their donations, rather than hindered them. So far, the newspaper has raised more than $29,000 of its $30,000 first quarter fundraising goal. 

“I think doing this kind of work only contributes to reaching our goal,” McGee says. “In the end I think this hard-hitting work and doing things at a professional level really appeals to our most important donor crowd, which is journalists and other journalism organizations.”

For legal help, the DTH turned to the Raleigh-based Stevens Martin Vaughn and Tadych PLLC. “They’re one great resource that we always stay in contact with for legal advice,” McGee says. “They’re confident in our case and believe we have a very solid one that spells itself out.”

The settlement approved by UNC officials involves less money than a $5.3 million learning center originally proposed by former Chancellor Carol Folt, and it keeps the Sons group off campus for half a decade. 

“I don’t have a personal opinion on the settlement,” McGee says. “But the UNC System was going to be in a tough spot politically regardless where Silent Sam ends up. On the right side of the political spectrum, there are critics of this deal who are angry because it goes against the state’s Monuments law, which does call for Silent Sam to return to its original place on UNC campus. Then of course, critics on the left are upset because this deal sends a sizable amount of money to a group that some view as racist. What matters [in regards to our lawsuit] is that negotiations violated the law.”

Because it’s still early in litigation, the Daily Tar Heel declined to disclose specific fees for the case. McGee noted that when the state loses open meetings and public records cases, the plaintiffs can be awarded coverage for attorney’s fees. 

For the student paper, the settlement isn’t about the outcome, it’s about holding power accountable to the law and ensuring public trust. 

“It’s what we’ve been taught to do,” McGee says. “We’re fulfilling our role as watchdogs to the public.”

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