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U.Va. considering new speech regulations for individuals unaffiliated with the University

Deans Working Group holds roundtable on proposed policy changes, legal boundaries of free speech

<p>Law School Dean Risa Goluboff chairs of the Deans Working Group, which was formed in the aftermath of the events of Aug. 11 and 12.&nbsp;</p>

Law School Dean Risa Goluboff chairs of the Deans Working Group, which was formed in the aftermath of the events of Aug. 11 and 12. 

Six months after the white nationalist rallies of Aug. 11 and 12, the University is considering policy changes that would limit the ability of individuals unaffiliated with the University to gather on Grounds. The Deans Working Group held a student feedback session Wednesday on the proposed policy changes.

The proposed amendment to U.Va.’s policy would regulate the use of outdoor University property by unaffiliated individuals — those who are not University students, faculty or staff, including alumni. The regulations would create a list of designated spaces where such unaffiliated persons can gather, limit the number of attendees and require advanced reservation of spaces during specific hours of the work week for set lengths of time.

Currently, unaffiliated groups are allowed to gather in any outdoor space on Grounds with minor regulations on the time, place and manner of the expression. These regulations include preserving the aesthetics of the University’s property, not creating safety issues and not disrupting University functions. The Supreme Court has historically ruled that governing authorities can put such reasonable limitations on the time, place and manner of individual expression.

Students raised a variety of concerns about the proposed changes at Wednesday’s session. Bryanna Miller, a fourth-year College student, the student member of the Board of Visitors and a member of the Deans Working Group, said she wasn’t surprised by the mixed reaction from the students, knowing the policy is complex and requires a lot of consideration. 

“I think that this is a really complicated issue area and we’re trying to overlay a policy that is trying to be as simple and clear as possible but when you do that there is going to be inevitable questions and challenges,” Miller said. “I think what we’re looking for is that perfect balance and as perfect a solution as possible.”

University President Teresa Sullivan created the Deans Working Group following the events of Aug. 11 and 12, when white nationalists marched on the Lawn and held the deadly “United the Right” rally in downtown Charlottesville the following day. The group is tasked with evaluating the University’s response to the events and proposing changes to current policy structures.

Law School Dean Risa Goluboff, who chairs the Deans Working Group, gave an overview of the existing policy — adopted in August 2016 based on an earlier 1993 version — as well as an explanation of the proposed changes. Students then engaged in smaller, round-table dialogues before reconvening as a whole to share each groups’ thoughts on what they discussed.

The current policy sets guidelines for the use of University facilities and property. University facilities may be made available to students, faculty and staff on a first come first served basis. Unaffiliated persons or parties, on the other hand, are unable to reserve facilities unless invited by a student organization. 

Affiliated persons are also allowed to use outdoor University property for any expressive activity, including peaceful demonstrations and protests, as long as they are “consistent with University policies” and event-specific security requirements and do not disrupt “normal operations” or obstruct access to buildings or pedestrian or vehicular traffic.

The proposed amendment would not affect existing policy for affiliated persons. It would instead address the use of outdoor University property by unaffiliated groups and individuals, such as by limiting their speaking or distribution of literature to “designated locations” on Grounds.

The proposed list of “designated locations” included the McIntire Amphitheater and North Rotunda Plaza, which is the area surrounding the Jefferson state and the lower area between the sidewalk and University Avenue. Other locations included Newcomb plaza between Newcomb Hall and the Bookstore, Nameless Field, Mad Bowl, the grass triangles down the hill from Brooks Hall, Brown Residential College grass field and the Observatory Hill grass field.

According to the proposed policy change, unaffiliated persons would be required to contact the Office of the Dean of Student to reserve a space at least seven days prior to their desired speaking date. Reservations would be limited to two-hour blocks of time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Reservations would be limited to once per week and a group of up to 25 individuals.

Goluboff acknowledged how the amendment would create a significant change and the University community needs to evaluate its potential negative effects as well as benefits.

“If as a community we ultimately decide the cons of having a policy like this are too great and out number the pros, we don’t have to do it,” Goluboff said. “But there are ways to tweak the policy to make it more or less open.”

Students raised questions ranging from how the policy would apply to student groups with non-affiliated members to how the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. reservation period Monday through Friday would burden unaffiliated people who work. Students also questioned the decision of a 25 person cap on gatherings, how space would limit spontaneous protests and counter-protests and how law enforcement would respond to individuals violating the policy.

According to the policy, “access shall be granted without regard to the content or viewpoint of speakers or their sponsors.” The University must be content neutral and cannot deny certain speakers with certain views, Goluboff said. This, however, raised concerns among some of the students.

Second-year College student Deborah Ayres-Brown asked whether the new policy would allow the gathering of white nationalists and similar groups on Grounds. As long as there is no imminent harm, they would be able to, Goluboff said.

“On August 11, it wasn’t purely expressive conduct,” Goluboff said. “There was all kind of violence that went along with it but if you took out just the speech part and then complied with all these rules and it was just speech, that speech would be protected and they would be able to come on Grounds.”

Fourth-year College student Maeve Curtin said she wasn’t sure yet if the new amendment should be implemented at all, especially in considering the mission of the University as a public, inclusive institution.

“Let’s think about whether or not any sort of limitation is really healthy to the pursuit of truth and knowledge that is the charge of the University,” Curtin said. “When you think about the University’s charge and obligation to the community, the state and sort of the world, too, a policy that is apparently exclusionary to any groups not University related seems sort of contradictory to our mission have.”

Miller said there is not set timeline for the review process of the proposed amendment to be considered by the Board of Visitors, though the next step will be to continue to receive input from the public and analyze data.

“I think we’re going to continue public engagement with students and faculty and staff members and continue to collect feedback,” Miller said. “The Deans Working Group will continue to review the policy for the remainder of the semester. We don’t really have a timeline for it, we’re still in the data collection phase.”

Miller will share the student feedback with the Deans Working Group, and said she was pleased with what came out of the conversations. 

“I was really happy with the amount of thoughtful engagement,” Miller said. “I think everyone kind of took this policy and dissected it and the fact that we did it individually beforehand because I sent out the policy early but also in groups is really positive.”

Full text of the proposed policy