Silent Sam: What You Need To Know

August 23, 2018 | By Riddle & Brantley Accident Injury Lawyers
Silent Sam: What You Need To Know

Late Monday afternoon, a group of more than 250 protesters gathered in Chapel Hill at the University of North Carolina to call for the removal of “Silent Sam”, a Confederate monument located on campus. This gathering occurred just one day prior to the start of the Fall semester. By 9:30 pm Monday night, the statue was found lying on the ground while hundreds chanted around and celebrated its removal. Since the statue's removal, a controversial vibe has been felt across the State of North Carolina and even throughout our nation. For many individuals, its removal was long overdue for it represented an unforgotten history of racism and white supremacy. For others, however, it was seen as a complete destruction of a historic figure and dishonor to families of the Confederate army. Regardless of which view you take, we feel it's critical that the history behind "Silent Sam" is known and the laws that currently protect both our freedoms as Americans and the placement of these types of monuments are understood. While we take no specific position on this issue, we feel that everyone should understand what this historic event means for our local community and our nation in the weeks, months and even years to come.

Brief History of Silent Sam

In 1913 the controversial Confederate monument “Silent Sam” was erected on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. According to the News and Observer, the statue was given to the University by the Daughters of the Confederacy to honor the students that fought in the Civil War for the “Southern Army.” Until 1940, Silent Sam seemed to be the center of little controversy. However, it soon became the location for anti-WWII protests. Civil Rights activists, students and other individuals began to question the “possible” racial undertones implied by the erection of the monument. In fact, after Martin Luther King’s assassination, the News and Observer reported that Silent Sam was graffitied. Fast-forward to the night of August 20, 2018 protestors successfully toppled Silent Sam furthering the debate about what to do with the remaining Confederate monuments in North Carolina. For more information on the history of Silent Sam, view the News Observer’s article “Who Is Silent Sam”.

What is the Law Regulating the Removal of Memorials and Monuments?

After many supporters of the movement called for the removal of Silent Sam, the then Governor Pat McCrory approved a bill that prevented any government agencies from removing any public monument or memorial. Under this law, NC General Statute §100-2.1, “A monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the state may not be removed, relocated, or altered in any way without the approval of the NC Historical Commission.” Therefore, based on this law, cities, local governments, public universities and even the current governor cannot remove any statues or monuments, without the approval of the state Historical Commission. The NC Statute, however, does provide limitations on removal. In the event a monument must be relocated due to a project (for example construction or in this case, damage by activists), it must be returned to its original location within 90 days following the completion of the project. For an event where the monument needs to be permanently moved, it must be relocated to a site in similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated. This restriction does not permit relocations to museums. The NC legislature’s stance on protecting Confederate monuments prompted 7 activists to take matters into their own hands. On August 14, 2017, during a protest, activists toppled a Confederate monument erected at the Durham Courthouse.  These people were charged with violations of the law because they damaged public property.

What are the Limits of Free Speech

While the First Amendment protects individuals’ right to free speech and right to assemble, this right is not unlimited. Individuals do not have the right to commit crimes and violate laws while assembling and exercising the right to free speech. Under N.C. Gen. Statute §14-132, it is considered a misdemeanor “if any person shall unlawfully write or scribble on, mark, deface, or injure the walls of any public building or facility, or any statue or monument situated in any public place.” This law also states that it is illegal for any person to riot or cause disorderly conduct around a public building. Additionally, regardless of protestors’ position on Confederate Monuments, no individual has the legal right to damage, destroy, or deface public property. What happened this week is very similar to what happened in Durham last year. Protestors damaged and destroyed a statue which is public property. These people if identified could face prosecution for this crime. This act of violence “mob justice” is never the answer to promote any political or activist views. Destruction of property is a crime.  The safest and most effective way to change the North Carolina ’s stance on protecting or removing Confederate Monuments is to exercise your right to vote.

Did UNC Do Enough to Protect the Statue?

Since N.C. General Statute §100-2.1 prohibits the removal of monuments without the approval of the historic commission, the University of North Carolina was unable to remove or relocate the statue. After the toppling of Silent Sam, UNC’s Chancellor issued a statement to the UNC community asserting that “at no time did the administration direct the officers to allow protestors to topple the monument.” Additionally, the Chancellor stated that “we rely on the experience and judgment of law enforcement to make decisions on the ground keeping safety as a top priority.” According to some eyewitnesses, law enforcement officers were unaware of any plans to topple the statue. Remember last year the protestors made no effort to damage Silent Sam and they protested peacefully. During this recent protest, activists placed banners around Silent Sam and then marched to the center of Franklin Street in an apparent effort to distract law enforcement. While the police were distracted by the protest movement in the street, some individuals who were hiding under the banners around Silent Sam were able to tear down the statue. The police were most likely unaware of the intent of the protestors to actually bring down the statue. We can’t blame law enforcement.

The Aftermath of the Silent Sam Removal

Two days after Silent Sam was toppled, the State Historical Commission voted to keep three Confederate monuments on the property of the state capital. Instead, the commission’s resolution is to provide signs that will explain the historical significance and add more context to the monuments. This decision seems to just place a band-aid on the controversial issue. There is a high chance that people who oppose Confederate monuments will continue to make sure their voice is heard. It is possible that some activists will continue to protest these statues by defacing, damaging and destroying them. One of the best solutions may be to relocate Confederate monuments and memorials and place them in museums or libraries to preserve history. This would not only protect the monuments from further destruction but would also allow supporters to appreciate the historical significance of the statues. Those who are offended by the Confederate monuments would not have to see them by their placement on public property. As members of the community, we'd like to hear what you think. Do you believe that the removal of Silent Sam and other Confederate monuments is critical for our state to maintain peace or should the history of the south remain intact? Let us know what you think on Facebook or Twitter.