University President Jim Ryan addressed controversy over critical signs posted on Lawn room doors and criticism of the Board of Visitors’ recent vote to contextualize the Thomas Jefferson statue in written remarks issued Friday. The University will consider imposing regulations on Lawn room residents as early as next year, according to Ryan.
The signs, which contain profanity such as “f—k UVA” and criticism of the University’s history of enslavement and inaccessibility, have generated calls for removal from some alumni and community members.
“Personally, I find the signs deeply disappointing, not simply because of their language and location, but because they fail to acknowledge any of the progress that this University has made to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive,” Ryan said. “I believe those efforts deserve our gratitude and respect and are a source of inspiration to continue the work ahead.”
University Counsel Timothy Heaphy — who said he has received feedback from various alumni about possible “legal remedies” the University could use to restrict this type of speech — confirmed that the signs are protected under the First Amendment and do not violate University policy or any provision of the housing contract signed by Lawn residents.
“The Lawn is a public place and those who view these signs are not involuntarily submitted to their offensive character,” Heaphy said in a letter to University Rector James Murray. “While the speech may clash with the beauty of the Lawn and violate an objective sense of decorum, its regulation would be content-based and unconstitutional.”
Heaphy said that the University could institute a blanket ban on all signs, including those that advertise upcoming events or activities, as well as those that critique the University.
In his remarks, Ryan said that the University will consider implementing additional regulations on Lawn residents before the next academic year and before the next class of students moves onto the Lawn.
Ryan also said that he has received various inquiries about the Board’s vote to contextualize the Thomas Jefferson statue located on the north side of the Rotunda. According to the resolution, the University plans to work with historians and other experts to acknowledge the accomplishments of Jefferson as a founding father, but also recognize his ownership of enslaved people, usage of enslaved laborers to build and maintain the University and other “contradictory writings and actions.”
The Jefferson statue was the site of a protest last summer following the death of George Floyd at which demonstrators called for the statue’s removal. It was also the location of a confrontation between white supremacists and counter-protestors in August 2017.
Ryan said that the University may contextualize the statue through a plaque or in a digital format and said that the contextualization will provide “historical facts to help understand both Mr. Jefferson and the statue.”
“It will not make judgments, but relay historical truths about his remarkable life, an effort consistent with our purpose as a University — to educate and pursue the truth,” Ryan said.
Though the statue has generated calls for removal, Ryan said that he does not support the removal of the statue, nor would he ever approve an effort to do so.
“As long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson,” Ryan said.