When a University of Virginia alumnus read aloud from his Bible on the steps of the school’s Rotunda this week, university police came to silence him.
A police officer approached Bruce Kothmann as he read from Isaiah 40, to explain that such activity is no longer allowed at the public university. Even if he had sought permission in advance, the Rotunda is not one of the places the university has designated for public speech by outsiders. Kothmann had come to campus because his daughter had just finished her sophomore year. He took his Bible with him to challenge the school’s new policy limiting speech by outsiders on campus.
“To say a single alumnus or group of alumni cannot gather anywhere on the grounds of the university to speak,” Kothmann said, “that seems like an overreaction to ensure a safe environment for students. . . . I want the school to keep being a school that says free speech is important — especially a university founded by Thomas Jefferson.”
Freedom of speech has recently loomed as an issue at campuses across the country. But it is especially fraught at U-Va., where several-hundred white supremacists and white nationalists marched in August across the school’s Lawn and at the Rotunda with torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us!” It was the beginning of a weekend of violence in Charlottesville that turned deadly and sent shock waves across the world.
It shocked Kothmann, a 1989 graduate of U-Va. who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. He was at the beach with his daughter Aug. 11 when she began getting photos on her phone sent by friends.
Julia Kothmann thought of Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were pillaged in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in 1938, and she thought of the Ku Klux Klan. “It was terrifying, disgusting, revolting,” she said.
But last week, when Bruce Kothmann read U-Va.’s new rules, crafted in the months after the white-supremacist rally, he was concerned.
Teresa Sullivan, the university’s president, wrote to the campus community last week. “The University of Virginia is committed to the constitutional principle of free speech and to the safety and security of every member of this community,” she wrote. “The university has issued a revised policy regarding the time, place, and manner of expressive activity by unaffiliated persons meeting outdoors.”
The university’s definition of “unaffiliated” people includes alumni. The policy requires such people to make reservations at least a week before they want to speak publicly or hand out information, restricts groups to 25 or 50 people, permits two hours of speech, and designates nine areas on campus where such events are allowed.
But those sites don’t include the heart of the university, Kothmann said; the designated sites wouldn’t be the most effective places to spread a message. He said he believes there is a fundamental principle at stake. The Jeffersonian tradition is to allow people to express even unwelcome ideas, Kothmann said. “You answer speech with speech. . . . That’s the antidote to damaging speech.”
As a Jewish family, he said, they were frightened by the torchlight march. They’re also a U-Va. family: Kothmann’s wife is also a 1989 graduate, and other relatives are students or alumni. They understand the problem and what the university is trying to do. There’s no question the school has the right to put some restrictions on the time, place and manner in which people speak, Kothmann said.
“At some point, a group of people assembled to speak is a mob.” But, he said, “I don’t think this is the right policy to make that distinction.”
So he grabbed his Bible bound in black leather as he left his home near Philadelphia and drove to Charlottesville. Once there, he tried to speak with university officials about his concerns. And he told people in the general counsel’s office he would challenge the policy Tuesday afternoon on the Rotunda steps.
He read Psalms 121 and 122 and had begun a passage from Isaiah when a police officer arrived and politely began explaining the new rules. Kothmann videotaped their interaction and voluntarily left campus because he didn’t want to get arrested. University officials confirmed that the video he shared happened at U-Va.
“In accordance with university policy, any unaffiliated person who engages in public speaking on outdoor university property without properly reserving one of the designated locations will be asked to make a reservation,” university spokesman Wesley Hester said. “The university’s time, place, and manner policy applies to all unaffiliated persons who are engaged in public speaking, regardless of content.”
He said the policy changes are designed to provide a framework for unaffiliated people “to peacefully assemble and engage in constitutionally permissible speech at the university.”
The president of the student council at U-Va. did not return messages seeking comment about the policy.
Students had little reaction to the new rules, Julia Kothmann said, perhaps because everyone was busy with finals or perhaps because people were still so upset by the white nationalists who had gathered on campus in August.
Some students and faculty urged the university to issue no-trespass orders against some organizers of the white-supremacist rally. Last month, the university banned one of the organizers, Jason Kessler, from its campus and facilities. U-Va. officials said they had received reports from students that Kessler had threatened them. When Kessler came to the university’s law library, some students and community members protested his presence with signs accusing him of causing violence.
Julia Kothmann was at first a little taken aback by her father’s idea and didn’t want other students to think her family was advocating on behalf of white supremacists. But she is a strong believer in protecting the right to free expression, even when the ideas expressed are controversial, and said the campus is a place where listening to opposing viewpoints is valued. “I give the administrators credit for creating that culture at U-Va. — that’s so important for growth and learning,” she said.
A few days after the violence in August, thousands of people filled the Lawn with candlelight, sending a message of love to reclaim the space. “We want to preserve the right of people to do that,” Julia Kothmann said.