The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the University of Virginia is becoming a battleground for speech

People outside a speech April 12 by former vice president Mike Pence in Charlottesville. (Jason Lappa for The Washington Post)
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Peter Galuszka is a freelance writer in Chesterfield, Va.

On April 12, hundreds of well-scrubbed, mostly White young people thunderously applauded former vice president Mike Pence as he espoused “free speech” at the University of Virginia.

“I am a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” Pence said to an overflow crowd at the 851-seat auditorium at Old Cabell Hall. He noted that he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior and attacked the campus newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, for editorializing that Pence should be turned away because of his strident anti-gay views.

The Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group that has 70 members at the Charlottesville school, had organized the event. It is part of Pence’s national speaking tour that has involved such stops as Stanford University. The goals are to push Pence’s chances in a 2024 presidential run and to help voters forget the chaos and crudity of former president Donald Trump.

The Jefferson Council, a small group of right-wing alumni, co-sponsored the spectacle. Its members are distressed at what they say they believe is censorship by left-wingers and unfair questionings of the traditional history of Thomas Jefferson, the school’s founder.

“We want an open dialogue and civil discourse. We want to protect the Thomas Jefferson legacy,” says Bert Ellis, who earned two degrees in the 1970s and went on to become a wealthy television-station mogul based in Atlanta. He heads the two-year-old council.

His group is an example of how the state’s most prestigious public university has become a political football in recent years. Once a bastion of preppy White men, it long ago admitted women and has expanded to more foreign students and non-Whites. That apparently seems threatening to the Old Guard, which is critical of the university’s attempts to extend its diversity outreach.

Starting about a decade ago, climatologist Michael Mann was hounded with thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests because of his warnings about climate change. Teresa A. Sullivan, the school’s progressive and popular president, was temporarily ousted for reasons that remain unclear. Rolling Stone magazine printed a wid[y read and bogus story about an alleged rape by members of a campus fraternity. In 2017, the school and the city were the target of the “Unite the Right” demonstrations by hard-right fascists that drew global attention and resulted in three deaths.

This most recent reactionary iteration seems to begin with Ellis. In 2020, he was visiting his alma mater and was walking along “the Lawn,” a well-groomed area that represents Jefferson’s attempts at building “an academical village.” The area is lined with quaint if drafty individual dorm rooms with fireplaces. Only high-achieving fourth-year students live there. Ellis was one of them in the mid-1970s.

During his visit, he was taken aback when he saw a sign on a dorm door with crass statements. He knocked on the door and met Hira Azher, a fourth-year student who graduated in 2021. Azher, a woman of Pakistani American descent was regarded as an excellent scholar and athlete who spent her free hours volunteering as a certified emergency medical technician for the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad.

Ellis claimed the sign violated university rules. “After a two-minute discussion, she slammed the door in my face,” he said. Ellis snapped a cellphone picture that he included with his protest to university President Jim Ryan, who said Azher had a right to post the sign. The incident raged across the conservative blogosphere.

This raises a question: If Ellis is such a strong supporter of free speech and worried about lefties dominating discussion, why did he try to suppress Azher’s freedom to express herself?

Ellis said that Ryan’s decision was “horse hockey” and that Azher’s use of profanity was “low rent.”

I also pressed him on which school groups or individuals were suppressing free speech. It was the editorial board of the Cavalier Daily and certain members of the student council, he said. One opinion writer stated that she is a lesbian and opposed Pence’s speech because he would make worse an already difficult anti-gay atmosphere at the school.

In the early 1970s, I attended a Boston-area college and was a newspaper editor. This was the time of the Vietnam War and Watergate. It is unimaginable for me to have thought then that a disgruntled, powerful alumnus would single out a few student opinions and turn them into the cause for a rousing, right-wing campaign event.

And, despite all the manufactured buzz about the suppression of ideas by progressives, there were few if any protests at Pence’s April 12 event.