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Students, faculty, alumni and parents voice opinions on free speech at U.Va. at community listening session

The Committee on Free Expression and Inquiry is taking community members’ opinions into account when drafting a University statement regarding free speech

More than 20 attendees — including students, professors, alumni and parents — spoke during the listening session, which was conducted via conference call.
More than 20 attendees — including students, professors, alumni and parents — spoke during the listening session, which was conducted via conference call.

The Committee on Free Expression and Inquiry held a listening session Monday from noon to 1:30 p.m for community members to voice their opinions on free expression at the University. More than 20 attendees — including students, professors, alumni and parents — spoke during the listening session, which was conducted via conference call. Committee members listened in on the call but did not respond to attendees questions or concerns, and the conversation was recorded so any Committee members not in attendance could listen at a later time.

University President Jim Ryan created the Committee on Free Expression and Inquiry in February with the purpose of crafting a statement of principle on the topic of free speech and expression at the University. The Committee on Free Expression and Inquiry is made up of 12 members and is chaired by Leslie Kendrick, White Burkett Miller professor of Law and Public Affairs and vice dean at the School of Law. Members also include Dean of Students Allen Groves; Rita Dove, former U.S. Poet Laureate and English professor; Mazzen Shalaby, fourth-year Batten student and Board of Visitors student member and other University professors and alumni.

Kendrick introduced the session and explained the purpose of the Committee and the listening session, explaining that the committee’s role is crafting a long-term set of values to which the University should adhere. 

“The committee's been charged with devising a succinct statement of principle to explain how free inquiry and free expression relate to the various missions of the University research, scholarship, teaching and advancement of knowledge generally,” Kendrick said.

The goal of the session was to explore “the role that free expression and free inquiry play in U.Va.’s academic enterprise and how they shape engagement with the ideas of others,” by hearing community members' opinions on what should be included in the final statement.

Around eight professors spoke during the session, with several faculty members voicing concerns that the University administration no longer tolerates criticism of University policies. 

Computer science Prof. Andrew Grimshaw said he felt like he could not express honest opinions on events at the University and that the University was moving toward policing faculty and students’ freedom of ideas.

“Increasingly, constructive criticism of the way things are going is really frowned upon, particularly around curriculum and the fact that in particular cases the standards are being significantly lowered to encourage ‘broader participation,’” Grimshaw said. “When you attack those discussions, you're basically attacked as either racist or as delivering microaggressions on the rest of the faculty.”

Other faculty members expressed concerns that students were not able to express differing viewpoints in the classroom without feeling ostracized by their peers or feeling that their professor would not respond well to differing viewpoints. 

Economics Prof. Kenneth Elzinga expressed that the University should craft a statement that echoes that of the University of Chicago. Elzinga said that the statement should be created so to be accessible to students, so that students know that their speech is protected.

“I think that if we do have a statement that really does portray the University of Virginia as being a place that wants to have a marketplace of ideas, in the Jeffersonian tradition ... it's really important that it not just be a statement, that it be marketed in some way to have a brand identification,” Elzinga said. “Not just for faculty to understand it, and not just administrators to understand it, but for students to understand.”

The University has previously been encouraged by some community members to adopt free speech principles similar to those crafted by the University of Chicago. The Chicago statement — first released in July 2014 — affirms that the university could not silence any type of speech except if it creates a genuine threat, arguing that it is not the university’s place to shield individuals from ideas and opinions that some may find disagreeable. Instead of silencing speech, the statement encourages the community to reject wrong ideas through discussion and discourse.

“The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed,” the statement says. 

Ryan previously said that the University would not adopt these principles because they were tailored to the University of Chicago, a private university. Creating the Committee on Free Expression and Inquiry was Ryan’s alternative to adopting the principles crafted by the University of Chicago, according to Virginia Magazine editor Richard Gard.

During the listening session, Whitney Murphy, a parent and alumnus of the University, expressed frustration that her daughters and their friends feel like they cannot express their opinions in class for fear of criticism by their classmates and professors. 

“They are afraid that they're going to not get as good a grade or that they're going to be targeted by the professors, and their peers, the other students in the class,” Murphy said. “They’ve also said that they can't wear any Greek lettering or their friends can't wear Greek lettering to class since the Greek system is a target right now. Even their friends that have spoken up in class — one of their friends ... said that now she knows what it feels like to be a minority, and a person of color, because she voices different opinions.”

Following increased restrictions in February that further limited gatherings, many students took to social media to call out the Inter-Fraternity and Inter-Sorority Councils’ decision to allow in-person recruitment events as a leading contributor to massive spikes in cases. The University stated that while Greek life is likely one factor, the rise in noncompliance and case counts is widespread across the student body.

Other alumni also voiced concerns that students at the University no longer feel comfortable sharing their opinions in academic settings. Alumnus Hal Reynolds said that he hoped that the administration would prioritize hiring faculty that understand the importance of free dialogue and how valuable a time college is for learning how to exchange ideas.

“We all go to college to open our minds and to be exposed to new ideas,” Reynold said. “That's the whole purpose of college … I hope the University administration is seeking faculty who understand this principle just as the Founding Fathers did.”

Not all parents and alumni speaking, however, agreed with this idea. Sherry Ramsay, alumna and parent, said that she has not heard the same rhetoric from her son about feeling suppressed in class. Ramsay also suggested that the lack of in-person interaction due to the COVID-19 pandemic might be exacerbating the problem of people not being able to engage in dialogue with one another.

Some suggested that actions taken outside of the Committee’s statement could be beneficial for promoting free expression at the University. One speaker suggested that the University could put on an event where faculty with differing viewpoints debate with one another to show students what a respectful exchange of ideas looks like.

Donors, alumni, parents and faculty made up the majority of speakers during the 90-minute listening session, expressing frustration that students in classes were afraid to speak up and voice opinions for fear of negative consequences. Many brought up that college should be a place where students can embrace a diversity of thought and learn about the “marketplace of ideas.” During the last quarter of the session, some students spoke up, saying that the student body had different types of concerns regarding free speech.

Third-year College student Caroline Campos articulated that students’ freedom of expression has been policed unequally depending on their identities and backgrounds. 

“Black students, students of color and other marginalized students are utilizing a freedom of expression that has historically, and even presently, been largely more policed than when white students are using a freedom of expression,” Campos said.

Third-year Batten student Ryan Alcorn argued that there is a difference between criticism of ideas and violation of freedom of speech principles.

“I wanted to remind the previous speakers generally that being criticized for holding offensive ideas isn't legal censure, but it is a central tenant to the marketplace of ideas that ideas that are offensive and wrong will lose to ideas that are better,” Alcorn said. “I really hope that the University of Virginia's statement will recognize the difference between widespread and public condemnation among students of ideas that we find offensive and the legal consequences for that speech.”

Alcorn also said that those speaking had addressed the issue of free speech hypocritically and expressed that he hoped the Committee’s final statement would not solely reflect the political ideology of donors. 

“This statement shouldn't be made to appease the political ideology of donors,” Alcorn said. “Alumni were up in arms to move the explicit sign on the Lawn room doors earlier this year, which is a perfect example of free speech that has been heavily criticized but entirely legal, as determined by University Council. I haven't heard that same uproar from the people speaking today on behalf of the students who put up those signs, especially when President Ryan tried to ban those Lawn room signs, so if we're going to speak in favor of free speech in this maximalist form, I think we shouldn't be hypocritical.” 

The debate surrounding free speech at the University escalated in October 2020, when eight Lawn residents posted social justice protest signs on their Lawn room doors that were titled “f--k UVA.” At that time, University Counsel Timothy Heaphy confirmed that the signs were protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Nevertheless, in early March, Housing and Residence Life announced that they would affix two message boards to each Lawn room door, to which residents are permitted to attach messages or paper materials, limiting the size of public posting on Lawn room residents’ doors. 

Then on March 12, University leadership directed Housing and Residence Life to take down signage on a Lawn room door because they said it advocated physical violence. The sign had an image of the Rotunda surrounded by flames and draped with a white hood resembling that of the Klu Klux Klan, as well as an image of a grim reaper holding a scythe. Beneath the Rotunda were the words “Burn It All Down,” a police belt with the initials “UPD,” and a quote from Kwame Ture — “In order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience” — followed by the phrase “UVA has none!”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — an organization that defends the fundamental rights of students and faculty at colleges across the country —  rates the University as a “green light” institution, meaning a college or university whose policies “nominally protect free speech,” according to the FIRE website. FIRE applauded University leadership when they confirmed in October that the F— UVA signs on Lawn room doors were constitutionally protected, but criticized the University’s decision to remove signage from the Lawn room door in March in a letter to HRL executive director Gay Perez. In the letter, Adam Steinbaugh, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said that the signage “does not evidence an intent to direct others to engage in lawless action.”

At the end of the session, some attendees said that they hoped that the Committee would host more listening sessions in the future and advertise them better so that more students and alumni could attend. Kendrick said that this session was the first step in the process of crafting the statement and thanked all listeners for attending. 

“This is one step in a process but it's a very important one,” Kendrick said. “Thank you for your feedback.”