When a student newspaper calls for banning campus speech, basic freedoms are threatened

April 18, 2022 12:01 am

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Style Weekly)

The last place where the free expression of ideas and robust debate about them should be inhibited is a college campus. And the last institution that should call for such a thing, particularly at a university founded by one of the nation’s earliest champions of unfettered speech, is a newspaper.

But that’s what happened at the University of Virginia recently ahead of a speech there last week by former Vice President Mike Pence.

The paper, The Cavalier Daily, asserted in a March 17 editorial that Pence, a Republican who was former President Donald Trump’s understudy, was not entitled to a platform at UVa.

Its editorial board went far beyond disagreeing with or even impeaching Pence’s politics. It made the unsupported assertion that Pence’s words were tantamount to “violence” and an “impermissible” threat to the “wellbeing and safety of students.”

The editorial would be defensible if there were an actual risk of violence. (It’s worthy of note, however, that the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, said that the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”)

Pence’s brand of conservative politics alienates a lot of people, including me for the most part. However, it’s an untenable leap to equate it with violent hate speech. Yet the student editorialists attempted that, poisoning their argument by hyperbolically likening Pence’s UVa appearance to the brutality of neo-Nazi thugs who left serious injuries and death in the wake of their Charlottesville riot in August of 2017.

“…(W)e must seriously consider the environment we wish to tolerate,” the editorial read, implying that only those deemed morally or politically appropriate would have a forum at UVa for their speech. And who becomes the arbiter? The newspaper’s ed board? A student tribunal representing a favored political orthodoxy? A Star Chamber of faculty or administration illuminati?

On American college campuses, support for censoring speech is not widely shared, according to a nationwide poll of college students conducted last summer by Ipsos for the Knight Foundation. It shows that only 22 percent support restricting speech they consider “offensive or biased.” Just one in four felt it was permissible to disinvite speakers because the message would offend certain groups of people. Where students overwhelmingly draw the line is hate speech with just over two-thirds favoring a ban on racial slurs on campus.

UVa and American free speech have a common ancestor in Jefferson. For all his manifold historical failings, the third president understood that no society can be free without a right of unfettered expression that encompasses speech, religion, the press and the right of the governed to petition power for change. His fingerprints are all over the First Amendment.

While I am no Pence fan, I unequivocally defend his right to lawfully voice his ideas at UVa or any other venue. The same freedom allows me to write – and you to read – these words. I assert the same full-throated defense of the Cavalier Daily’s right to publish its March 17 editorial, because poorly reasoned speech enjoys no less protection.

Thankfully, wiser heads at UVa with a greater knowledge of and appreciation for the Bill of Rights dismissed the editorial for the folly that it was. In a letter to the editor published a week before Pence’s speech, 17 faculty members representing a wide range of academic disciplines dismantled the editorial and the troubling view of foundational liberties it reflects.

It laid bare the editorial’s “assumption that the editors should enjoy the freedom to say what they want but others with whom they disagree should not.”

The faculty and administration response at UVa is refreshing. Not every university so resolutely safeguards academic freedom and the uninhibited exchange of ideas. University of Chicago climate science researcher Dorian Abbot was disinvited from delivering a lecture last fall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because of questions he raised about diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Lost in the editorial’s call to de-platform Pence at UVa is this important observation made by Mo Elleithee, the founding director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University: It’s not just the speaker who would be denied a forum.

“Sometimes we get criticized,” said Elleithee, whose program at Georgetown is respected nationally and by Washington’s most influential names for evenhandedly exposing its students to perspectives from across the political spectrum. “Students will say, ‘How can you give a platform to so-and-so?’ I respond that I’m not just giving them a platform, I’m also giving you a platform. Any speaker we have has to agree to take students’ questions, and I give students the right to ask whatever they want.”

When I first met Mo 22 years ago, he was doing PR for Sen. Chuck Robb’s unsuccessful re-election campaign. Even when he was on the front lines of partisan clashes, Mo had a genuine regard and respect for his professional adversaries. When he became communications director for the Democratic National Committee, Mo had lunch monthly with his counterpart at the Republican National Committee, Sean Spicer, later Trump’s first White House press secretary. In those lunches, he said, he and Spicer would discuss anything but politics.

“That’s where I learned we have kids about the same age, that wore the (military) uniform, and how important his faith is to him,” Elleithee said. So after he returned to his alma mater and established the Institute, he invited Spicer to speak there. He said he got angry emails from some alumni and donors. The campus paper denounced Spicer’s visit but, rather than demand its cancellation, urged a boycott. Yet it drew a standing-room-only crowd and people had to be turned away. The audience included Trump supporters and detractors, Elleithee said, and both got to question Spicer directly. He may never know if any minds were changed that day, but those who were there were pleased to have had the access.

That’s what college is, or at least should be: a place where kids grow into adults and, maybe for the first time, are free to ask their own questions, reach their own conclusions and form their own views — to think for themselves. They should have the widest possible exposure to differing ideas and arguments and a supportive environment to examine their consciences and make their own choices.

At the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Stephen Farnsworth is no stranger to controversial speakers. He recalls an appearance he moderated several years ago with former President George W. Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove. While it generated a peaceful protest outside the venue, the event wasn’t disrupted, and Rove was not heckled.

“As the left and the right are engaged in trying to silence each other, everybody’s worse off,” said Farnsworth, a political science professor at UMW and director of its Center for Leadership and Media Studies. “This isn’t limited to college students. College students are in many ways mirroring what they see in the larger political discourse of this country.”

Increasingly, he said, students see the food fights that pass for informed debate on cable networks such as Fox and MSNBC “and think it’s a model for how they should behave themselves.”

Open forums such as those on college campuses are healthy, he said, because they afford the speaker the chance to be heard and the audience the chance to question, dissect and challenge the speaker’s assertions in real time in a setting that values open, informed inquiry.

“It’s sort of hard to move beyond the basic idea that the cure for false speech is more speech,” Farnsworth said.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]