CFN Member Encourages Reform at the University of Virginia

By on November 5, 2009

CFN member Ginny Robinson yesterday used her column in the University of Virginia’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, to expose the school’s illiberal speech policies. Robinson notes that another public college in Virginia, The College of William & Mary, recently earned a green-light rating from FIRE after revising its speech-related policies to comport with the First Amendment. As Robinson notes, UVA’s policies continue to earn it a red-light rating, our worst rating, because of their severe limits on free expression. In her column, Robinson explains to her peers and the administration why it’s time to change. Discussing the school’s bias policies, she writes:

The most disturbing of University policies currently in place is one against bias that encourages the "reporting of bias complaints so that [the University] can investigate the alleged facts for possible violation(s) of University policy, including the Standards of Conduct, and refer such complaints to law enforcement to determine whether an independent investigation for violation(s) of criminal law is warranted." The danger in that policy is encompassed in the definition of a bias complaint which bars students from participating in, among other activities, vaguely defined "acts of bigotry." While a student behaving in a close-minded manner is morally regrettable, the idea that the University reserves the right to censor this type of activity boarders on absurdity. The University is an institution for higher learning where all ideas can be voiced.

Samantha Harris made a similar point this spring when FIRE highlighted UVA’s policies in her series on the speech codes at the top 25 national universities (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report):

Given that the definition of a "bias complaint" includes protected speech (expressions of "bigotry," however deplorable they might seem, are constitutionally protected unless they fall within one of the narrow categories of speech, such as true harassment or threats, that a public university may legitimately prohibit), the university’s promise to investigate all such complaints necessarily means that protected expression will be subject to investigation. This, in and of itself, is enough to chill free speech on Virginia’s campus, since students will almost certainly wish to avoid the negative educational effects that would result from being subjected to any sort of disciplinary investigation.

Robinson rightly focuses on both the school’s constitutional duty as a public institution to respect the First Amendment as well as its moral duty as a university that claims to respect free expression to encourage, rather than stifle, that expression. As Robinson points out, enacting policies that chill and punish protected speech "goes against the basic democratic principles of both the University and the Constitution."

She ends her column by pointing out the flaws in UVA’s approach of policing "bias" and by encouraging her school to follow William & Mary’s example by implementing policies that reflect a strong respect for free speech:

The purpose of anti-bias statutes like the University’s are certainly admirable; however, the punitive powers attached to their enforcement are counter-productive. When the power is given to the University establishment to decide what constitutes inappropriate language, the University is simply exchanging one form of bias for another. That institutional bias proves a far greater danger to truth than the harm caused by individuals that discriminate. Increasing the diversity of opinions decreases this risk by allowing for the un-prohibited expression of alternative voices. The University should follow the example set by William & Mary and revise their speech codes so that legally-protected speech can be voiced without punitive consequence.

We look forward to working with Ginny and other CFN members at UVA to make this a reality.

Schools: University of Virginia