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Pence draws cheers, few protests at U-Va. after debate over speech

The former vice president’s speech was billed as, “How to Save America from the Woke Left”

Former vice president Mike Pence speaks at an event in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on April 12. (Jason Lappa for The Washington Post)
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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Former vice president Mike Pence talked about the fight for freedom in a speech at the University of Virginia, an event that had sparked heated debate about free speech before he arrived, but proceeded calmly and respectfully Tuesday night.

“We need this generation to be the freedom generation,” he said, “starting right here at U-Va.”

The event had touched off a national debate over “cancel culture” and whether college campuses are intolerant of conservative views. But Pence was greeted by a standing ovation in the hall Tuesday, laughter at his jokes, and repeated applause during his speech.

The crowd chuckled when Pence said he had heard there was a “little controversy” preceding his visit.

An editorial in a student newspaper had said Pence did not deserve a platform at U-Va., and that hateful rhetoric was “violent,” sparking backlash.

Pence told the crowd, “The antidote to ‘cancel culture’ is freedom. The antidote to ‘woke America’ is freedom.”

He praised the Trump administration, decried President Biden’s record and said “woke-ism” is running amok in public schools and universities. He said a young man had asked him before the event how to handle an environment in which conservative students felt they had to censor themselves on campus. Pence said he told him, “Speak up and smile.”

A dozen protesters stayed outside the building where Pence spoke, including a woman wearing a rainbow flag as a cape as she handed out fliers describing anti-gay legislation she said Pence had supported.

At U-Va., a Mike Pence event reignites a debate over free speech

Shortly before the event, as people lined up to get into the speech, there were only a few protesters. Kristen Maggard, a fourth-year student from Wise, Va., said, “Pence is here to talk about freedom and free speech, but I don’t think he stands for freedom. He actively pushes against marginalized communities with the legislation he has voted for.”

The former vice president was at U-Va. as part of a national tour of college campuses sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation. (At U-Va., the event was also sponsored by the Jefferson Council, an alumni group.) His speeches at other schools have drawn some protests.

But at U-Va., the event billed as “How to Save America from the Woke Left,” had been particularly fraught. An editorial in a campus newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, invoked 2017, when white supremacists marched on campus with torches. The piece criticized Pence’s statements and policies about gay and transgender people, immigrants and others. And they wrote, “Speech that threatens the lives of those on Grounds is unjustifiable.”

The piece prompted backlash, nationally and on campus, at a time when restrictions on free speech, self-censorship and “cancel culture” were already contentious. The Jefferson Independent, a student-run conservative publication at the university, countered with its own editorial denouncing efforts to censor speech and enforce conformity.

On Monday, a dozen faculty members wrote a letter to the Cavalier Daily supporting the paper’s editorial. They, too, referred to the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. “The tiki-torching white supremacists who invaded the Lawn were fans of the Trump-Pence administration,” the professors wrote.

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Leaders with Young Americans for Freedom at the University of Virginia said the organization wanted to host Pence because they saw a need for greater intellectual diversity on campus.

Aidan Thies, a graduate student in linguistics wearing a YAF shirt while in line for the event, said, “U-Va. is not necessarily friendly to people with right-wing opinions. But I think it’s good that [the speech is] going on despite the Cavalier Daily editorial board saying that Pence doesn’t have the right to a platform here. I thought it was pretty absurd," he said.

In the afternoon before the event, sunny skies and warm temperatures had the school’s Lawn full of students playing Frisbee and working on laptops in folding chairs.

Ethan Zelenke, a second-year student from Ashburn, Va., said he’s slightly right-wing and wanted to watch the speech. “When there’s a vice president here at the university, I figured it’s a good person to see, and I want be part of a national discourse,” he said. “You hear a lot from the left, you hear a lot from the right, and I just wanted to see for myself — to demystify it.”

Natalie Gonzalez, whose parents are from El Salvador, identifies as a person of color and said she would not attend the speech. Gonzalez said the Trump administration empowered racism.

“I’m a little fearful,” said Gonzalez, who said she has been verbally harassed in the past. “I just don’t want to put up with that today.”

Pence took questions at the end of his speech. The last student to stand up asked Pence what he would do if one of his children came out to him as gay.

Pence said, to loud applause, that he’d look them in the eye, and tell them, “I love you.”

He went on to say that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman. But we live in a pluralistic society, he said. And the way we come together as a country, “is when we respect your right to believe, and my right to believe, what we believe,” he said.

The U-Va. crowd responded with a third standing ovation.

Former Virginia governor and senator George Allen said after the speech: “It was a very civil event. The audience was great. I’m wearing a tie of Declaration of Independence signers on the eve of Jefferson’s birthday. You had some folks here who wanted to stifle free speech, but free speech prevailed.”

Svrluga reported from Washington.