Any good Carolina grad can tell you that the Daily Tar Heel is not UNC-Chapel Hill’s student newspaper but an independent entity that has no financial ties to the university, thereby securing editorial independence. In this, those selfsame Carolina grads will tell you, the Daily Tar Heel is, like so many of those other storied Chapel Hill Institutions, completely unique.

We kid, but it’s true. And because of that independence, the paper and its parent company, DTH Media, was able to do what most other news entities in the state were unable or unwilling to do: Challenge the UNC Board of Governors.

A lawsuit filed by DTH last week accuses the board of violating open meetings laws in its settlement with the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, saying that its members “conceived, negotiated, approved, and executed [it] in total secrecy.”

That settlement, sharp-eyed newshounds will remember, gave the SCV $2.5 million, the Silent Sam Statue and instant legitimacy for a group that, before now, was basically a 400-member biker gang bankrolled by $150 annual dues. And it happened through a hinky lawsuit that was settled the moment it was filed over Thanksgiving weekend.

Silent Sam (photo by Don McCullough)

This is significant on so many levels, not the least of which is the role of the DTH itself.

It’s likely that no other UNC-system university newspaper would have the desire or ability to pull off this lawsuit against its own governing body.

As it stands, the legacy media — daily newspapers and local TV news operations — would have dropped this lawsuit the moment the payoff came down. But our local defenders of the First Amendment aren’t what they used to be. The last time all the big dailies in the state got together to sue somebody, it was to overturn a state law that took away their paid legal notices, one of a few remaining reliable sources of revenue. And like a lot of things once deemed essential to running a newspaper, lawsuits are a luxury.

So North Carolinians once again owe a debt to Chapel Hill and the “university of the people” — yes, we know the paper is separate from the school — for stepping up when others couldn’t, or wouldn’t.

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