At Elite University, Partisan Double Standards Silence Speech.
The University of Virginia systematically polices progressive speech while conservatives harass and threaten students with no rebuke.
No words epitomize the utopian American project more than “Free Speech.” The unwavering notion that all people have an equal voice is a cornerstone of our democracy, and it has shaped countless debates over the future of our society. Founded by Thomas Jefferson and home to the violent “Unite the Right” rally of August 2017, no school has been the center of these debates more than the University of Virginia.
As an incoming freshman I was glad that, as a public college, UVA is required by law to guarantee all students’ free speech rights. However, upon arriving on campus I was dismayed to learn that while UVA highlights pro-life clubs and events put on by Trump supporters, they fail to show similar support for progressive students. In fact, they do the exact opposite. Progressive voices, particularly the voices of students of color, are surveilled and policed.
Progressive student leader Sarandon Elliott published an open letter in September of last year in which she described a pattern of unsolicited engagement with University Police Department officers. UPD approached Elliott at the student activities fair, entered multicultural centers uninvited, and even went as far as contacting Elliott on her private cell phone. Despite Elliott making it blatantly clear she did not want to talk with UPD, they continued to harass her.
This is made all the more troubling by UPD’s history with liberal student protesters. In 2006, UPD arrested 17 students during a sit-in protest for raising employee wages. In 2017, UPD arrested 3 protesters for holding a banner that read “200 years of white supremacy” at a UVA Bicentennial event. In that same year, UPD failed to protect students during the deadly Unite the Right rally.
The Unite the Right rally was especially traumatic for the UVA community because they trampled through the heart and soul of the university: The Lawn. In lieu of a quad, the lawn is where students and community members gather for picnics, ceremonies, concerts, and public discourse.
A select number of students live in lawn rooms, dorms facing into this public square. They are chosen by virtue of their commitment to free speech, honor, and the university itself. In September 2020, senior Hira Azher demonstrated her commitment to free discourse and improving UVA by posting a sign on the door of her lawn room. The sign read “F-ck UVA” and criticized the school for its ties to enslavement and eugenics.
That night, a UPD officer waited outside Azher’s room until 11:30 PM. When she arrived home, he told her that he needed to “file a report” because “someone was offended” by the sign. This alone displays the difference between reactions to conservative and progressive talking points. Criticism against republican students is levied by their peers, while criticism against progressive students is levied by police.
The fact that someone’s speech is vulgar or distasteful does not make it unprotected, and fortunately, the university defended her right to keep the sign on her door. However, after other students posted similar signs, the university revised housing policy to restrict signage on doors. While students used to cover their doors in advertisements for clubs and political campaigns, they’re now limited to message boards thinner than a standard piece of paper. Rather than permit progressive criticism, the university chose to silence speech in our public square.
Compare this with the university’s treatment of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), UVA’s most influential pro-Trump student organization. Two months after the university condemned Azher’s sign, YAF held a “Berlin Wall” event, in which they constructed a mock Berlin Wall in the center of campus, spray-painted phrases they disliked on it, and tore down the wall by throwing hammers at it. The phrases on the wall included “Feminism,” “Dr. Fauci,” and “BLM.” Many members of the UVA community, particularly women and students of color, found the wall to be dangerous and offensive. The school did nothing.
The issue here is not that the university allowed speech that some people found offensive. The problem is the double standard.
On February 28, 2021 Azher put up a sign displaying an image of the Rotunda — UVA’s landmark building — draped in a white hood reminiscent of the Klan. Behind that was a grim reaper holding a scythe, and below was the Kwame Ture quote “In order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience,” followed by the phrase “UVA has none.” That night, with no notice, no official warning, and no knock on her door, UVA officials tore down the sign. Given that it was taken down so quickly — less than 24 hours after it was posted — it is difficult to believe that the university underwent a robust, good-faith analysis to determine if the sign was constitutionally protected speech.
One month later, they removed another, virtually identical poster from Azher’s door. The administration justified removing the poster on the grounds that it “has the potential to provoke” violence. This claim was thoroughly rebutted by Adam Steinbaugh, Director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in a letter sent to UVA. Per Supreme Court precedent, he noted, speech is only unprotected when it “specifically advocates” for “imminent” lawlessness. While charged, political language often has themes of violence, that alone does not constitute a violent threat.
Even if you disagree with this sign’s message, it is clear that the sign no more endorses literally burning down the university than conservative groups on campus endorse throwing hammers at Dr. Fauci. However, the university chose to respond to only Azher’s speech, writing in a letter that, “the threatening nature of this sign is particularly apparent in the face of recent history, including the fear and intimidation brought to the lawn by torch-bearing rioters on August 11, 2017.”
Let’s ignore how YAF is rallying around the very causes that brought violent rioters to Charlottesville in 2017, while Azher is directly opposing those causes. Someone defending the university may interpret this quote as UVA being cautious in light of histories of violent protest. However, before, during, and after the 2017 Unite the Right rally UVA expressly defended protesters’ free speech rights, extending grace and nuance to violent extremists that they will not extend to their own students. Before the rally, despite knowing there was a “credible risk of violence,” the University publicly stated that they “support” the protesters’ right to be in Charlottesville. During the rally, UVA officials declined to prevent torch-carrying nationalists from surrounding students, in part out of respect for their free speech rights.
After the rally, UVA sent multiple letters to alumni, students, and faculty explicitly supporting the protestors’ speech. While at points the school decried the “hateful” ideology purported by rioters, at no point did they mention that the university permitted speech which eventually became violent. It is as if white nationalist rhetoric can’t incite violence, but one progressive sign is such a security risk that speech policy must permanently change.
That a university would extend such grace to nationalist extremists but not to its student body is absurd. It’s even more absurd that the university would extend this grace to a group that assaulted multiple students, yet not to the very body of students whose lives were put in danger.
When conservative-leaning students cry “self-censorship” (in a national op-ed, ironically) they misunderstand why the First Amendment matters. Freedom of Speech is not intended to protect you from criticism; it guarantees your right to criticize. Unfortunately, only some students at UVA are awarded that right. The rest are policed, harassed, surveilled, and even attacked by the very voices the university protects.
This article is part of a series on Free Speech and Self-Censorship on College Campuses. Part Two, concerning Self-Censorship, is set to be released on April 8, 2022.
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