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The University of Virginia. (ImagineerInc/Shutterstock.com)

What attending a “green light” university taught me about free speech

By July 10, 2017

The number of schools abandoning restrictive speech codes is growing — FIRE granted “green light” ratings to East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte last month, bringing the number of institutions earning FIRE’s highest rating for free speech to 33 nationwide. While it remains crucial to analyze and reform illiberal speech codes, examining schools that protect students’ First Amendment rights is equally valuable. Doing so sharpens the distinction between tolerant and repressive policies, provides a goal toward which advocates can work, and illuminates the benefits free and open debate can provide students and university communities.

My school, the University of Virginia, earned FIRE’s green light rating in 2010. Now, seven years later, a year at the university has provided me with insight into how UVA upholds its commitment to free speech and the impact this commitment has on students.

UVA’s green light policies, enacted under the leadership of President Teresa Sullivan and Dean of Students Allen Groves, have two primary effects on students and the wider university community. The first is a robust assurance of First Amendment protections on campus. This was made clear to me in March when a town hall event featuring Virginia Congressman Tom Garrett was interrupted by protesters who chanted loudly and unfurled a large banner that blocked the stage. The hecklers were promptly escorted from the venue. UVA’s removal of the hecklers from the event represents a refreshing divergence from the growing trend at universities to forfeit the rights of speakers to the heckler’s veto. As FIRE explained earlier this year, universities must respect protesters’ rights, but they must also ensure that speakers are not silenced:

FIRE vigorously defends the rights of individuals to protest any person or idea they choose, but protests may not silence others. When protests cross from peaceful, nondisruptive expression into intentional and sustained attempts to stop the speech altogether, they lose First Amendment protection.

Outside Garrett’s event, hundreds of protesters and onlookers gathered to express both their support of and frustration with the congressman and his policies. While verbal exchanges were heated, the protests remained peaceful and campus police stood by to prevent escalation. Without fanfare, UVA upheld its promises to defend both the right to speak and the right to listen. By protecting protesters and speakers from all sides, UVA confirmed for me that its commitment to the marketplace of ideas is more than mere lip service.

In addition to eliminating barriers to participation in free expression, UVA’s green light policies provide a second benefit to the university community by fostering a culture of free speech. As my fellow FIRE intern Jacob Hill explained last week, green light policies are not sufficient to create a climate in which students are eager to engage in vigorous debate, challenge their own ideas, and seek out opportunities for intellectual growth — but they are necessary. UVA owes its success in this arena to its leaders’ willingness to act upon stated values of intellectual challenge and free expression — a step many other university leaders are unwilling to take.

I saw this firsthand last November after the general election, when president Sullivan sparked controversy by using a quote by Thomas Jefferson (UVA’s founder) in an email she sent to the university community. Two days after the email encouraging continued participation in democracy and dialogue, nearly 500 faculty and students signed an open letter in response. The letter expressed concern that, owing to Jefferson’s slave-owning history and his views on race, “the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these emails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you [Sullivan] are attempting to convey.”  

In a follow-up statement November 14, Sullivan commended the vocal response from the students and professors who disagreed with her. Then, in her March address to the American Council on Education, Sullivan highlighted her rejection of calls for the firing of the professors responsible, reminding the university community that “in a free-speech environment, those faculty and students had just as much right to express their opinions as I did.”

Passionate discourse between faculty and university officials —particularly at the highest levels of the administration — not only reassures students of the protections afforded to their speech, but actually encourages students to engage in their own inquiry and debate. The culture of free speech exemplified and reinforced in this exchange pushes individuals to seek out dialogue without fear of retribution, encouraging students to employ free exchange as a powerful tool in their growth and development at UVA.

Case in point: UVA students are committed to exposing themselves to differing viewpoints. I witnessed this aspect of UVA’s free speech culture in late April while attending a talk by Asra Nomani hosted by the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society. Nomani, a Muslim woman and Trump voter, spoke to a packed audience and opened the floor to discussion soon after to engage with students. Met with tough questions, Nomani engaged in vigorous dialogue with students from the Muslim Student Association, both challenging their arguments and conceding weak points in her own.

While not necessarily an unusual occurrence on UVA’s grounds, the gravity of the occasion and its impact on the attendees remain impressive. Seventy students, in a packed room with no faculty or administrators present, engaged passionately and respectfully; they emerged with their arguments better tested, more focused, and doubly potent.

The goal of nearly every student attending university is to learn how to think and not what to think. UVA’s culture of free speech allows me to do just that. By talking to fellow students, professors, and guest speakers with whom I disagree, I practice changing the minds of others and reevaluating my own. Though the ideas I encounter are often uncomfortable and sometimes offensive, I know that the intellectual challenges I face at UVA will make me a citizen who is less naive and better prepared to advocate for causes about which I care deeply.

Ultimately, the lack of speech codes and culture of free expression that green light policies engender benefit students by furthering their educational goals. I am both grateful and proud to attend a school that not only shares my values but also supports, both in terms of policy and culture, my aim of emerging a better thinker.

Fulfilling the aspirations Thomas Jefferson had when he founded the University of Virginia, my university truly is a place where “the illimitable freedom of the human mind” prospers and is “not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead.” Every college student should have the opportunity to reap the benefits of attending a school that upholds the principles at the very heart of higher education.

If you want to learn more about the benefits of attending a green light university or how to make your campus a bit more like UVA, check out FIRE’s Spotlight page or request a review of your school’s speech code.

Julia Kothmann is a rising second year student at the University of Virginia and a FIRE summer intern.

Schools: University of Virginia