A Not-So-Silent Ending to the Silent Sam Saga

Manning Peeler

           After witnessing almost fifty years of vandalism and protests, Silent Sam fell from its pedestal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (“UNC-CH”) on August 20, 2018.  In the following months, much of the protest and debate surrounding the divisive statue subsided.  After the toppling, however, UNC-CH and the UNC Board of Governors (“UNC BOG”) still faced an important question: What to do with this fallen statue now? In a recent settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans (“SCV”), the UNC BOG sold the statue to the SCV and paid a significant sum of money to the SCV to limit potential future protests. On January 8, 2020, the Daily Tar Heel (“DTH”), the student newspaper at UNC-CH, sued the UNC BOG, claiming that it negotiated the settlement in violation of the Open Meetings Act and questioned the suspiciously silent ending to this saga.

            The North Carolina Open Meetings Act sets out standards under which public bodies of the state of North Carolina must conduct meetings to ensure that the public can access the information and discussions.[1] An exception to the open meetings requirement exists when a body consults with an attorney about a proposed settlement of a claim.[2] When meeting in closed session, the public body must keep an account of the discussion and reasonably later make it public record unless “public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session.”[3]

            In a suit filed on January 8, 2020, the DTH sued the UNC BOG, claiming that the information regarding the SCV settlements was not properly released to the public as required by the Open Meetings Act.[4] In an open session, Chairman Harry Smith assigned five UNC BOG members to work with UNC-CH to revise the University’s plan for the monument. The Committee met almost entirely in closed session on November 27, 2019, and it approved a settlement of a lawsuit between the SCV, the UNC System, and the UNC BOG. This settlement included that (1) the monument would be transferred to the SCV, (2) the UNC BOG would create a $2.5 million trust for its preservation, and (3) the monument could not be located in any county containing a UNC constituent institution.

            The Committee members first released information about this settlement in a December 16, 2019 op-ed piece in the Raleigh News & Observer.[5] The op-ed also made the first public mention of another agreement with the SCV that limited the SCV’s ability to display banners on university campuses in exchange for $74,999 from the UNC BOG. The DTH argued that, because the Committee did not release any of its meeting’s contents until three weeks after the settlement’s completion, it violated the Open Meetings Act, and the Court should render the Committee’s actions void.

           Opponents of the settlement have been vocal. The UNC-CH faculty quickly expressed its opposition; students at UNC-CH began on-campus protests; and a group of eighty-eight prominent alumni and donors filed an amicus curiae brief urging the judge to set aside the settlement because it was a “misuse of university funds” that “seriously damages the reputation of the University, which should be committed to historical truth and opposed to modern-day white supremacy.”[6] A UNC-CH law professor noted that “[Judge Allen Baddour] clearly has been following what’s been going on in the public commentary about what he did a few weeks ago, and he appears to be somewhat concerned about it.”[7] After initially approving the settlement, Judge Baddour vacated the SCV-UNC BOG settlement on February 12, 2020 because of the SCV’s lack of standing to file suit and have a court-ordered settlement on this matter.[8] Without groups such as the DTH and the UNC-CH community questioning this settlement, the judge may not have reconsidered his initial approval. Now, the UNC BOG will have to find another solution under significantly increased criticism and scrutiny.


[1] See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.9-18 (2019).

[2] Id. at § 143-318.11(a)(3).

[3] Id. at § 143-318.10(e).

[4] Complaint at 13, DTH Media Corp. v. University of N.C., https://s3.amazonaws.com/snwceomedia/dth/f9fab47e-67ae-4207-9a98-c2aa0ecff218.original.pdf.

[5] Jim Holmes et al., We Created a Trust to Pay a Confederate Group to Take Silent Sam. It was the Best Solution., News & Observer (Dec. 16, 2019), https://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/article238369068.html.

[6] Kate Murphy, Prominent UNC Alumni Want to Stop the $2.5M Silent Sam Deal with Confederate Group, News & Observer (Jan. 29, 2020), https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article239768938.html.

[7] Matthew Burns and Laura Leslie, Judge May Reconsider Approval of ‘Silent Sam’ Deal, WRAL (Dec. 20, 2019) https://www.wral.com/judge-may-reconsider-approval-of-silent-sam-deal/18845716/.

[8] Matthew Burns and Sarah Krueger, Judge Throws Out ‘Silent Sam’ Deal, WRAL (Feb. 12, 2020), https://www.wral.com/judge-throws-out-silent-sam-deal/18948287/.

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