The University of Virginia (UVa) made us proud by eliminating the last of its unconstitutional speech codes recently, earning a spot in our elite group of "green light" colleges and universities. Today, the Cavalier Daily, a UVa student newspaper, published columnist George Wang’s op-ed highlighting UVa’s commitment to free speech and stressing the importance of free speech on college campuses.
Wang explains why he commends the university for its achievement and why he commends FIRE for encouraging universities to correct common mistakes in campus speech policies:
Freedom of expression is crucial to a university’s educational environment. Without free speech, there is no flow of competing ideas through which a clearer perception of truth and understanding can be reached. Dean of Students Allen Groves quotes Thomas Jefferson in a public message on the Just Report It! website. "For here we are not afraid … to tolerate any error so long as reason is free to combat it." Suppressing any form of expression denies students the opportunity to challenge that thought through reason.
Sustained community dialogue – not through tedious lists of regulations and definitions – is the only way to address discrimination. A FIRE pamphlet titled, "Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies," notes that "speech codes teach students the wrong lesson about how best to answer speech with which one disagrees, emphasizing censorship over further dialogue." Essentially, regulatory codes chill the expression of free speech and cast doubts on those who have dissenting opinions for fear of political incorrectness.
Furthermore, as an institution of learning, the University ought to encourage discourse from all points of view – not simply mainstream views. Groves agreed. "It is my opinion that no place should be more protective of – nor more aggressively celebrate free speech – than a college or university, and in particular this University." Speech codes often blur the line between what is and what is not illegal speech. Indeed, the line is often blurred in practice as well as in policy.
It is FIRE’s mission to educate the public about the threats to individual rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them, and it is clear that UVa strives to do the same, which we applaud. The college campus serves as a quintessential marketplace of ideas in our society; how can we expect students to be able to maximize their learning experiences if they are not able to take full advantage of this marketplace in preparation for life after college? As Wang writes:
In addition to the direct problems of censorship, university speech codes present another problem. If the purpose of college is to prepare students for the rest of their lives, how does censorship prepare them to answer such speech after graduation? Simply teaching students that hate and discrimination is bad is not enough; instead, students must strive to understand why. As The Huffington Post’s Adam Goldstein said, only students and prisoners have diminished First Amendment rights. It makes little sense to differentiate between students and the rest of the population. In fact, it would make sense that in an academic setting, even greater protections ought to be afforded to the freedom of expression to better educate through discourse. This is no longer a problem at the University, but other schools in Virginia are not so fortunate. At George Mason University, for example, "The sale, distribution, or solicitation of any … newspaper by GMU and non-GMU organizations and individuals is subject to prior authorization." GMU effectively has total control over speech on campus.
It’s views like these that persuade a school to go "green," and we could hardly be prouder of UVa. We hope that the other Virginia public universities—including George Mason University, James Madison University, and Virginia Tech—will learn from UVa’s efforts and do the same.