WWJD—What Would Jefferson Do?

By September 1, 2005

The Associated Press (fresh off a masterful profile of FIRE) is reporting that “University of Virginia officials are considering making hate speech a violation of the campus honor code after racist messages were scrawled on doors and shouted from passing cars.”

To be clear, UVA already has an appalling speech code. In a chilling inversion of everything its founder (Thomas Jefferson—you may have heard of him) held dear, UVA bans:

  • jokes of a sexual nature;
  • suggestive comments about physical attributes or sexual experience;
  • gestures of a sexual nature; and
  • sexually suggestive e-mails.

But now, UVA is considering banning even more protected speech, despite the fact that it is a public institution and thus bound by the First Amendment. In such times, the words of Jefferson himself might provide some guidance. As he once put it:

The saddest epitaph which can be carved in the memory of a vanished liberty is that it was lost because its possessors failed to stretch forth a saving hand while yet there was time.

While there is still time, then, lovers of liberty might remind UVA of another admonition of its founder. He wrote the following to James Madison after the latter drafted the Bill of Rights:

The following [addition to the Bill of Rights] would have pleased me: The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or otherwise to publish anything but false facts affecting injuriously the life, liberty or reputation of others, or affecting the peace of the [United States] with foreign nations.

Yes, that’s right—everything. Even so-called “hate speech.” Also worth noting are the words of Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia:

Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men, governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity? But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature.

Jefferson would abhor both UVA’s existing speech code and the proposal of a new one. We should do the same—no matter how tempting it may be to resort to coercion in light of deplorable racist speech.

UPDATE (September 2, 2005): The AP erred in the article linked above. It is now running a correction saying that while UVA administrators are not considering adding “hate speech” to their honor code, students have demanded it. Such a proposal is no less awful (but perhaps less likely to be enacted) coming from a different source; the UVA students who are pushing this anti-Jeffersonian idea would do well to read FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus.

Schools: University of Virginia