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Law School Dean discusses moving forward at forum after events of Aug. 11 and 12

Topics of discussion included freedom of speech, equality at U.Va. and new policy initiatives

<p>Law School Dean Risa Goluboff speaking at Alumni Hall on Saturday</p>

Law School Dean Risa Goluboff speaking at Alumni Hall on Saturday

Law School Dean Risa Goluboff delivered a talk at Alumni Hall Saturday, where she discussed the events of Aug. 11 and 12 in relation to the University. The Lifetime Learning program within the Office of Engagement, in partnership with the Alumni Association, hosted the event, which attracted dozens of alumni.

Goluboff was appointed as the chair of the Deans Working Group established by University President Teresa Sullivan in August to review and recommend improvements to the University’s response to the events of Aug. 11, when several hundred torch-wielding white nationalists marched through Grounds. The University also hired the firm Margolis Healy & Associates to evaluate safety and security on Grounds. 

The working group released a report last month suggesting improvements to University policy regarding future demonstrations on Grounds. The report concluded that the University’s response to the events of Aug. 11 was insufficient due to a mindset of dealing with traditionally nonviolent protests in the past and suggested modifications to current University policy to acknowledge the violent nature of recent white nationalist demonstrations. 

During her comments, Goluboff discussed the events of Aug. 11 and 12 from a number of different perspectives, including her own role as chair of the University’s working group and as Dean of the Law School.

In opening, Goluboff emphasized the importance of viewing the events of Aug. 11 and 12 as an opportunity to move forward and enact positive change in the community. 

“There is resolve … that we can and must make something meaningful out of something tragic,” Goluboff said. “We have to see these events as a catalyst to reignite progress — to make the world, our city, our University a more just, equal and inclusive place.”

Goluboff also said it is difficult to balance protecting freedom of speech with preventing violence and intimidation on Grounds and in the Charlottesville community, but that the University is working on developing more policies to address the issue.

“True engagement and dialogue … are the core of what it means to be a university, and freedom of expression requires concerted effort,” Goluboff said. “It requires active support, and we all have to recommit to that … At the same time we have to make sure that we have the appropriate tools to respond when what we are faced with is not speech but something beyond speech.”

Goluboff said the events of Aug. 11 and 12 were not instances of individuals expressing their rights to free speech, but violence and intimidation concealed as such. 

“Much of what we saw in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12 was not speech — it was violence cloaked under the premise of speech,” Goluboff said. “I want to make sure that we don’t mistakenly protect violence that presents itself in the guise of free speech.”

Goluboff noted, however, that in the aftermath of recent events, some members of the University community continue to feel excluded.

“These events [of Aug. 11 and 12] remind us that despite the University’s long standing … commitment to diversity, humanity, equality, mutual respect and dialogue across differences [of opinion,] not everyone in our community feels equally welcome here,” Goluboff said. “We want to ensure that each and every person feels equal certainty that they are entitled to be here and that each and everyone of them helps make us who we are.”

Goluboff said that differences of opinion are acceptable and encouraged within the University community, but not in the form of intimidation or hate against others with contrasting viewpoints. 

In closing, Goluboff said she was hopeful that the violent white supremacist events in Charlottesville are an anomaly in an otherwise successful movement toward equality and freedom. 

“I hope, if I don't quite predict, that when the story of the march of civil rights is told, what happened in Charlottesville will be seen as a late and ultimately futile reaction to the successes of the freedom struggles of the last 50 years,” Goluboff said. “August 11 and 12 were violent and disturbing reminders that progress is all too often accompanied by a reaction.”

After Goluboff’s remarks, a brief question and answer session was held for attendees. Emily Gorcenski — a local activist who said she was present during the events of Aug.11 in order to protect students — questioned why Goluboff had not responded to inquiries from activists and other community members with knowledge regarding the events. 

“I am one of the people that was at the [Thomas Jefferson] statue that night,” Gorcenski said. “U.Va. investigators have asked activists to do almost all of the investigative work to hold people at the statue accountable. I have reached out to you [Goluboff] specifically for assistance with this and yet have not heard a response … Can you explain how the working group has not reached out to the community members who were there defending the students?”

“Thank you for your defense of the students, and I would like to hear from you,” Goluboff said. “I have been working through my multiple inboxes which have thousands and thousands of emails. I have spoken to a number of people who were there that night and gathered a lot of information about it.”

Another attendee questioned why the University was not better prepared for the demonstrations of Aug. 11. 

“I felt that there could have been actions before that [Aug. 11], preparations, in other words, where we could have navigated where people rally,” the person said. “I felt like there was no legal stance on that, and I just want to know if in the future, if we have people who come in and say they want to rally, isn't there a way to contain it?”

“At the University, we do have some policies in place about the use of various spaces,” Goluboff said. “The question the University is asking now is … Are there ways to provide permitting that will still enable and facilitate robust free speech while enabling the University to identify where and when such speech happens?”

Politics Lecturer James Todd said in an interview following the talk that he agreed with many of Goluboff’s points and appreciated the legal perspective and insight she introduced into the conversation concerning the events of Aug. 11 and 12. 

“I particularly liked … to hear the overall idea that there are questions we need to look at,” Todd said. “We don't have easy answers to some of these questions, [like] how do you balance the right to carry a gun and the right to free speech, and does the fact that you're in a demonstration where some of the people are carrying arms chill your ability to speak freely and be worried about speaking freely?”

After Goluboff finished her remarks, she spoke of the importance of addressing the public on the progress of the working group and receiving input about its actions. 

“I think it's important for me to take any opportunity I can to talk publicly about the work of the working group and what the University is doing in response to August 11 and 12,” Goluboff said in an interview. “Forums like this one also provide an opportunity for me to hear feedback and questions, which I think is really important to the working group.”