A recent spate of racial incidents at the University of Virginia has led some people to claim that an epidemic of racism menaces the university's culture [Metro in Brief, Aug. 30].
Adding to that perception has been a flow of inflammatory rhetoric. The dean of African American affairs, M. Rick Turner, said, "I'm highly questioning everything at this time because of unprecedented racial terrorism acts."
U-Va. President John T. Casteen III made the melodramatic pronouncement that "these acts threaten the core freedom that makes university life what it is." And Paul M. Gaston, a professor of civil rights history, claimed, "This is more than a few jerks; it's part of a cultural movement."
In reality, however, U-Va. students are overwhelmingly bright, sophisticated, well-traveled and tolerant. With few exceptions, they reject racism as despicable. This is reflected by, among many other things, the fact that six of the past 12 student council presidents have been African Americans.
The U-Va. Charlottesville campus also hosts many multicultural student organizations, including the powerful Black Student Alliance. It has an Office of African American Affairs and an Office of Equal Employment Programs, and it recently created the position of chief diversity officer [Metro, Sept. 22].
It defies credibility to assert that the recent racist incidents on or near campus, though reprehensible, are representative of U-Va. as a whole. At every opportunity in the recent past, the university's students and personnel have denounced racial intolerance.
This makes it all the more disheartening that some people are calling for a harsh new disciplinary sanction to make the vague offenses of "racial hatred" or "acts of intolerance" violations of the honor code. Such violations of the code bring automatic expulsion. This proposal is plagued by two shortcomings:
First, the Constitution prevents censorship of speech that is merely offensive or hateful. Like it or not, the First Amendment gives Americans the right to express vulgar, ignorant or repugnant ideas -- and they do not forfeit this right when they apply to a public college.
Even more important than the constitutional consideration, however, is the larger issue of how a free society -- and a free university -- should deal with bigotry and hatred.
Do we turn to authorities to decide which expressions are permissible and which are offensive? Do we assemble a board of censors to scrutinize students and decide who among them is too hateful to be heard? Or do we put our faith in free discussion and open debate and allow all viewpoints to compete for attention in the marketplace of ideas?
The future of free speech on the U-Va. campus may depend on how the university decides to answer these questions.
-- Anthony Dick
is a 2005 graduate
of the University of Virginia.