An upcoming speech by former vice president Mike Pence at the University of Virginia has reignited a debate over free speech on the Charlottesville campus.
At an event last week called, “What Should We Do About Free Speech at UVA?” panelists spoke to an audience of about 100 students, professors, alumni and others, with the university president emphasizing that protection of free speech should be about principles rather than politics.
Pence is expected to speak at the university on Tuesday as part of a national tour on college campuses sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation. At earlier stops, according to news reports, he has hailed the work of the Trump administration, while also decrying President Biden and what Pence called an “all-encompassing assault on culture and values” by the “woke left.” His appearances have drawn some protests.
The debate over the appearance is especially complicated at U-Va., where the question of free speech is intricately bound up in both the foundations of the school and its recent past. Thomas Jefferson, who founded the university, wrote to “follow truth.” And not five years ago, white supremacists marched with torches on the campus, an act protected by the First Amendment.
Top school leaders say the discussions over the scheduled speech by Pence serve to prove that diverging views are welcome on the campus. “The exchange of ideas about Mr. Pence’s presence on Grounds is not a sign that free expression is dead on Grounds,” James Ryan, university president, and Ian Baucom, executive vice president and provost, wrote in the Cavalier Daily student newspaper, “it’s a sign that it is alive and well.” The fact that there has been such a robust conversation about the event, Ryan said in an interview, “to me is heartening.”
Concerns about freedom of expression on university campuses around the country are widespread and range across the spectrum. Last month, student protesters disrupted events at Yale Law School on the East Coast and the University of California Hastings College of the Law on the West Coast.
In some places, faculty worry that politicians are sharply limiting what they can discuss in classrooms. In others, students say they are afraid to speak their minds. A recent national survey found that college students increasingly believe that free speech is threatened on campus. And everywhere, the impact of social media, including the knowledge that an offhand remark could be broadcast and endure online indefinitely, is felt.
Too often now, rather than standing up and debating someone whose ideas seem threatening, people are trying to stop them from speaking, said Scott Walker, president of the Young America’s Foundation, which brings conservative speakers such as Pence to college campuses. It is a trend that is “dangerous in terms of where we stand in America today and how we continue to protect our rights,” said Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin.
A growing majority of college students believe their campus climate stifles free speech, according to a study released by the Knight Foundation and Ipsos earlier this year. In 2016, almost three-fourths of students felt free-speech rights were secure. Today, less than half do, the study found. Those views reflect stark political and racial divides.
Two-thirds of Republican students polled in 2016 said that speech was secure, but that dropped to less than a third in the most recent survey. White students were more likely to favor schools exposing students to all kinds of speech. Black students were more likely to say they have been made uncomfortable by statements from others. And 1 in 5 students surveyed reported feeling unsafe on campus, particularly women and students of color.
“There is no question that speech can hurt people, it can offend people, it can disparage people,” said Michelle Deutchman, executive director of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. But when people try to sanction certain kinds of speech, she said, the question then becomes, who makes the decision?
The issue of free speech has been simmering at U-Va. in recent years. In 2020, a student upset about white supremacy, the legacy of Jefferson as an enslaver and many other issues at the university put a sign on her door that cursed the school, on the very lawn Jefferson designed. Outcry led some alumni to form a group called the Jefferson Council to promote free speech and other issues on campus. The group is also helping to sponsor the Pence event.
Last month, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) denounced cancel culture in higher education in a speech at U-Va. School of Law. An opinion piece ran in the New York Times by a U-Va. student who wrote, “I came to college eager to debate. I found self-censorship instead.”
Then came the announcement that Pence would “take a stand for America’s founding” at U-Va., following other appearances in recent months at the University of Iowa, Texas A&M University and Stanford University. According to the Stanford Daily, Pence talked about “how to save America from the woke left,” at the school while protesters chanted outside and some heckled him from the audience.
A freshman student at U-Va. wrote in the Cavalier Daily in deeply personal terms about how unwelcome she had felt on campus, noting high rates of suicide attempts among gay young people, and said that the invitation to Pence should be rescinded.
A recent Cavalier Daily editorial titled “Dangerous rhetoric is not entitled to a platform” argued, “Speech that threatens the lives of those on Grounds is unjustifiable,” and “Hateful rhetoric is violent, and this is impermissible.” The editorial board criticized what it said were views held by Pence on gay and transgender people, immigrants and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Once “so-called politics turn into transphobia, homophobia and racism, they are no longer mere political beliefs, but rather bigotry that threatens the well-being and safety of students on Grounds,” they wrote.
Eva Surovell, the editor in chief of the Cavalier Daily, said that Pence coming to U-Va. is different than him visiting Stanford or any other college campus in America to talk about the Founding Fathers. During the editorial board meeting, she said she was wondering if neo-Nazis and white supremacists would feel more comfortable coming to campus because of the speakers given a platform at U-Va.
Surovell said the issue of Pence speaking on campus was personal for many people on the editorial board, and they agreed that they had to say something about it.
The editorial sparked a backlash, including on the pages of the Cavalier Daily. Last week, a group of faculty members wrote a joint letter criticizing the editorial for equating the speech by Pence with violence, saying that argument contradicts the First Amendment and does a disservice to victims of real violence, such as those fighting in Ukraine. Quoting Jefferson, they wrote, “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Nickolaus Cabrera, 20, a sophomore who is the chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom chapter at U-Va., said the views held by Pence are not dangerous, but saying he is not entitled to a platform is because it threatens free speech. “That’s when it becomes dangerous. That’s when it becomes harmful.”
Cabrera said he joined the Young Americans for Freedom group as a haven because he has found the political climate on campus to be hostile. “Conservative students are ridiculed for simply expressing their opinion in the classroom,” he said.
The event is intended for students of all political persuasions to engage with conservative ideas, he said. Pence is someone he looks up to. “He’s strong. He’s a principled conservative,” Cabrera said.
Max Bresticker, an opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily, wrote that Pence must be allowed to speak. “I do not care much for Pence and find many of his beliefs abhorrent,” he noted, but said that characterizing his values as violent begs the question, “at what point do differences of opinion become harmful?”
National media coverage also followed, with Pence tweeting links to a Fox News story. In a tweet Friday, Pence said he was proud of Cabrera and the chapter “for standing up for freedom of speech!”
Ryan, the university president, said some of the motivation for the students who wrote the Cavalier Daily editorial was to support students who had been marginalized, not just to cover their own ears and avoid hearing opposing views.
He said people often talk about free speech as though there were a time in the past when it was truly free. But until recent decades, many people such as Black students and women were often excluded from college campuses and the conversations happening there.
Last summer, the university board of visitors adopted a statement on free expression and free inquiry, which includes the idea that all views deserve to be heard, a commitment that “underpins every part of the university’s mission.”
The university is working to foster that by asking students to be empathetic speakers and generous listeners. It remains important, Ryan said, for students to learn how to respectfully engage with people and ideas they disagree with, on a campus with a very diverse population, “and to be a counterpoint to the intense polarization we see outside of universities.”
He argues the debate around the Pence event shows some of those hard conversations are happening, and flourishing, on campus. “It’s wrong for people to think this should be simple,” he said. “It’s not simple.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.