CALHOUN: Choosing media blitz over dialogue

Students’ recent FOIA request unfairly targets Douglas Laycock and the University

On May 23, 2014, undergraduate student Gregory Lewis and University alumna Stephanie Montenegro issued an open letter to University Prof. Douglas Laycock and filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for his university-funded travel expenses and cellphone records for the past two-and-a-half years. Laycock is currently the Robert E. Scott Distinguished Professor of Law and is also Professor of Religious Studies. Perhaps more importantly to the activists in question, Laycock is also the husband of University President Teresa Sullivan.

Lewis, who is currently the president of Queer and Allied Activism (QUAA), was contacted by the national LGBTQ rights group GetEQUAL late last semester about their campaign against Laycock; Professor Laycock, they assert, is anti-LGBTQ rights because of his support of the Arizona Senate Bill 1062 that Governor Jan Brewer recently vetoed. GetEQUAL reached out to Lewis hoping QUAA would join the effort. According to an excerpt of the GetEQUAL email Lewis shared with QUAA, “the University of Virginia — a publicly, taxpayer funded university — continues to allow Professor Laycock to use his status at the university to promote these anti-LGBT efforts.”

After a feverous general body meeting for which I was present, QUAA unanimously voted to hold off on GetEQUAL’s offer, but the group asked for more information on Laycock’s positions and for a meeting with Laycock. It was then that Lewis declared he would continue with the campaign on his own, regardless of the opinions of QUAA members. Putting aside the substance of Laycock’s views, there are several notable problems with the way this campaign has been carried out.

First, Lewis and Montenegro never bothered to directly request the information they issued a FOIA request for. Had Laycock refused such a request, this would be a completely different situation. Instead, Lewis has made another costly FOIA request to the University when he could have tried asking for the information first. In fact, Lewis and Montenegro made no effort to meet with Laycock for a dialogue at all.

Lewis and Montenegro also claim that Laycock’s briefs and opinions have been used indirectly by third parties to damage the lives of LGBTQ persons. This is tantamount to holding an individual accountable to an opinion that referenced his work out of context. Laycock has stated time after time that he is in support of marriage equality; how others manipulate and twist his thoughts is out of his control. Laycock is a co-editor of “Same Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty,” a book detailing how to protect religious freedom while allowing same-sex marriage. He contributed to an amicus brief in support of the gay and lesbian couples in both the Proposition 8 case and Defense of Marriage Act case, arguing that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, have the right to marry.

I also take issue with GetEQUAL’s unfair criticism of the University. The University has made numerous improvements to LGBTQ life on Grounds. We have a full-time LGBTQ Coordinator, regular LGBTQ-focused events put on by students and faculty with full cooperation from the administration, and among other initiatives, our Dean of Students has stated publically that the University will not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, even though the state allows public institutions to do so.

This is hardly the track record of an “anti-equality” law professor and a university that lets professors run rampant damaging the lives of LGBTQ students. All of this information was available and presented to Lewis (I talked to him personally about Laycock’s support of marriage equality). In short, Lewis’s and Montenegro’s methods have started a media blitz as well as a smear campaign against Laycock, not a dialogue.

This is why I was so puzzled when I read that Lewis and Montenegro wanted to start a “dialogue” with Laycock. Not only was their claim against him shaky, but FOIA requests are also not known for fostering a trusting environment in which dialogue can take place — they are instead a sign of distrust. Was the FOIA request intended to make Laycock more receptive to this attempt at dialogue? As a source close to Laycock revealed, Laycock offered on May 16th to meet with Lewis and Montenegro any time after May 22nd. Lewis and Montenegro never responded to Laycock’s offer, instead choosing this media campaign.

Rather than take the available steps to foster a dialogue with Laycock and reach some mutual understanding, Lewis and Montenegro chose to initiate a media blitz. Starting with The Daily Progress, Lewis and Montenegro’s “dialogue starting” FOIA request was being covered in around a dozen publications, including The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. Lewis and Montenegro have sensationalized an issue that has not proven to affect any LGBTQ person, let alone anyone in the state of Virginia or any student of the University. As a former president of the Queer Student Union at the University and active member in the LGBTQ community on Grounds, I worry that Lewis and Montenegro’s radical approach at dialogue will reflect poorly on the great strides the University has made for LGBTQ life on grounds.

By no means am I denouncing radical queer activism. Radical activism has an important role in the LGBTQ movement. However, Lewis and Montenegro’s activism has garnered media attention but no real outcomes that will benefit the University community. On Twitter, Lewis claimed his “FOIA request contributes to the open, transparent dialogue that truly needs to happen and is currently being avoided.” Starting a media blitz with less than half of the facts is an effort to promote neither transparency nor activism. Simply put, it’s a smear campaign.

Blake Calhoun is a fourth-year in the College and a former president of Queer Student Union.

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