Lawyers representing Nikole Hannah-Jones told state leaders in North Carolina on Thursday that they were “evaluating all available legal recourse” against the University of North Carolina and its board after the investigative journalist’s stalled tenure bid prompted outrage from alumni, scholarly groups, and journalists across the country.
The lawyers, including a team from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told state representatives that they must neither destroy nor alter any documents or data connected to “potential claims” by Hannah-Jones, specifying that she may bring “federal action.” In a letter, the lawyers specifically asked the recipients to retain correspondence with the Chapel Hill campus’s Board of Trustees and the UNC system’s Board of Governors, as well as any documents pertaining to Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project” for The New York Times and other journalistic work. The news was reported earlier by The News & Observer and NC Policy Watch.
Hannah-Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A university spokesman, Joel Curran, told The Chronicle that Hannah-Jones’s lawyers had sent a letter to Chapel Hill, too. Curran declined to comment further.
Hannah-Jones told NC Policy Watch that she had retained counsel “to ensure the academic and journalistic freedom of Black writers is protected to the full extent of the law and to seek redress for the University of North Carolina’s adverse actions against me.”
In her statement to the news outlet, she pointed to the “wave of antidemocratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices, and chill free speech” as reasons she had decided to “fight back.”
“As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades-long career in journalism, I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights,” she said.
Hannah-Jones’s prize-winning journalistic work, which examines race in society, has become a political flashpoint amid a conservative effort to restrict how history and racism are taught in colleges and schools.
A Chapel Hill board member in January presented questions to campus leaders about Hannah-Jones’s tenure package. In the end, the campus board did not act on her tenure bid. In April the university’s journalism school announced her hiring — as a professor of the practice with a five-year appointment — with fanfare, but the news prompted a political backlash from conservative commentators.
On Monday the university’s Faculty Executive Committee urged the Board of Trustees to “uphold the long tradition of respect” for professors’ recommendations in hiring and tenure cases, and to take up Hannah-Jones’s bid. “These steps must be undertaken to address a breach of trust in a process that is essential to our standing as a leading public research university.”
This week, local news outlets reported, Chapel Hill’s board received Hannah-Jones’s resubmitted tenure package.