In Virginia, Education Isn’t Always Liberal

When "humor and jokes" become a free speech issue.

Virginians who think of colleges and universities as bastions of free inquiry and no-holds-barred arenas for intellectual engagement might be shocked at how inaccurate that picture can be. Some of the state’s colleges and universities have put in place policies that make a mockery of such notions.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has issued a report on the state of free speech on U.S. campuses. It makes for dispiriting reading. Fewer than half the institutions in America provide a robust defense of free expression. Virginia’s record is likewise mixed: Six of its public institutions – Christopher Newport, Longwood, Norfolk State, U.Va.’s college at Wise, VCU, and Virginia State -- received the group’s lowest rating. Only three — James Madison, William & Mary, and U.Va. — received the highest.

The colleges receiving poor marks impose a combination of speech codes and prior restraint. For instance: At Christopher Newport, students are forbidden to post anything that might be deemed “disrespectful.” And anyone “wishing to exercise their freedom of speech … must register with the Dean of Students at least 24 hours in advance.”

Believe it or not, that represents a considerable improvement. CNU used to insist that groups wanting to demonstrate ask permission 10 days in advance. The school changed the policy after it accidentally redounded to a Republican’s advantage: In September of 2012, GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan made a campaign stop at the school. Some students wanted to protest his appearance, including the Feminist Alliance and the Gay-Straight Union. They weren’t allowed to. And even if they had been, they might not have been noticed, because the school permitted demonstrations only on its Great Lawn, far from where Ryan was speaking.

Yet the school still has a long way to go: CNU’s policy on computer communications prohibits — among other things —– “unwarranted annoyance.” Given the hair-trigger sensitivities encouraged by the hothouse atmosphere of modern higher ed, that could cover a heck of a lot.

But don’t think CNU is an outlier. Many state universities impose equally egregious limits on freedom of expression. Take Longwood University, which designates the sole “area . . . for speeches and demonstrations” as “the Lankford Mall which is a primary crossway on the campus and will consist of the patio and the surrounding area located on the south side of the Student Union.” That’s it. And you still have to get permission first.

At Norfolk State, anyone who isn’t on a list of officially recognized campus groups must obtain written permission before handing out literature. Remember, Norfolk State is (like CNU and Longwood) a public institution — so the prohibition is just as unconstitutional as if the city of Norfolk itself had passed it.

Virginia Commonwealth University? It prohibits “humor and jokes about sex that denigrate women or men in general.” And last month, Virginia StateUniversity earned the dubious distinction of making FIRE’s “Speech Codes of the Year” list. Its code of conduct says no student may “offend” any member of the university community.

Private institutions do not face the constitutional issues public ones do, but some are no more enlightened. The University of Richmond has a system that enables witnesses of “bias incidents” to report them to a “Bias Response Team.” Bias incidents are those that “do not appear to constitute a crime or actionable discrimination” but which nevertheless “may,” among other things, “mock” individuals or groups. (You can find all the speech codes at www.thefire.org.)

Some might think policies like these cannot be taken seriously; surely they must be honored more in the breach than in the observance. In some cases that might be true. Yet FIRE’s case histories — and they are voluminous — make it abundantly clear that many colleges and universities not only take them seriously, but pursue them to sometimes ridiculous extremes. Consider some of the recent cases FIRE has highlighted: A student group at Dixie State rejected because its name included Greek letters. ModestoJunior College forbidding a student to distribute free copies of the Constitution — on Constitution Day. A pro-life group at Johns Hopkins denied recognition because it might make some students “uncomfortable.”

Really.

Virginia has seen similar episodes, albeit not so many in recent years. For that you can thank the eternal vigilance of groups such as FIRE. In the future, you also should thank those state lawmakers who have joined the cause. This year, two Republican delegates — Scott Lingamfelter and Rick Morris — have introduced legislation in Virginia’s General Assembly to restore a modicum of free speech at the state’s colleges and universities. Lingamfelter’s would do away with “free speech zones” that deny free speech outside the zones. Morris’ would grant students facing non-academic disciplinary charges the right to attorney representation. Based on FIRE’s findings, the measures are sorely needed.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  • GILMORE||

    Look, all this is very interesting and all, but all I care about is getting a closer-up view of the college chicks in the picture. HELLO, KANSAS!

  • Pavlov's Cat||

    The University of Richmond

    I was "escorted" off U of R campus and threatened with "disturbing the peace" for wearing a t-shirt that has 18 handguns printed on it with the words, "CELEBRATE DIVERSITY" underneath. I was at a charity event open to the public, and I was being quiet and attentive to the program. No one had complained to me about the shirt and I was in the middle of a group of a dozen people I met up with there.
    I told them I would be happy to leave as soon as I was reimbursed for the entry fee, otherwise I'd be happy to take the citation and see them in court with my dozen witnesses and a First Amendment counter-suit.
    They paid me, I left, and I have never been back.

  • Calidissident||

    Isn't Richmond a private school? Not that I think they threw you out for a valid reason, but I don't see how that's a First Amendment issue.

  • Tonio||

    UR is a private school. Which is why he got his money back and didn't get the truncheon.

  • Doctor Whom||

    Virginians who think of colleges and universities as bastions of free inquiry and no-holds-barred arenas for intellectual engagement

    must have stepped out of a time machine from about thirty years ago.

  • Pavlov's Cat||

    Longer, Doc.

  • Otisjay||

    "Its code of conduct says no student may “offend” any member of the university community."

    I'm sorry but, What the actual Fuck.....

  • IT||

    But it is ok for university admins to offend basically everyone with restrictions on free speech.

    As a tenured prof at VCU I can tell you that it is a cesspool of political correctness, made worse when they hired a professional educrat Rao a couple of years ago.

  • Tonio||

    No, IT, many of those kids are blissfully happy to live in an environment where speech is controlled. And that's the root problem right there.

  • sarcasmic||

    I imagine that being offended by gay sex or abortion is in itself offensive, and not allowed.

    Tolerance means not tolerating anyone who disagrees with liberals.

  • Mark22||

    You know, much as I detest and oppose any government restrictions on free speech, I don't have sympathy for people who are "offended by gay sex or abortion".

    For centuries, those kinds of people used the power of government to wreck the lives of anybody who disagreed with them or blasphemed their evil invisible sky fairy.

    Yes, you have a right to speak out against gay sex and abortion, even to advocate reinstituting legal restrictions on them. But others have the right to heap all the verbal abuse on you that you deserve and ostracize you in return. That's also part of free speech and freedom of association.

  • Killaz||

    The key here, is who gets to define 'university community' gets to wield the power in the name of the 'community.' A tactic as naked in rationale as the divine right of kings. 'Progressive' is the greatest misnomer of all time.

  • Zeb||

    Rules like that are completely absurd. I hope they have some students who are clever enough to start filing complaints under that rule just to fuck with it. A person cannot control whether or not they are offending another person. Obviously some things are going to offend more people than others, but ultimately it has a lot more to do with the person taking offense.

  • sarcasmic||

    ultimately it has a lot more to do with the person taking offense

    I remember one morning I was walking across campus for something, and I saw two giggling girls run by with chalk in their hands. Then I saw what they were giggling about. They'd chalked "two girls kissed here" with a big X on various places on the sidewalks.

    While I wasn't offended, though I imagine some people were.

    I also imagine that those people who were offended would be the ones punished under these rules. After all, being offended by two girls kissing is intolerant, and tolerant people don't tolerate intolerance.

  • Zeb||

    We had that as a semi-official event at my college. The Queer Alliance group had a chalking day where they would write a bunch of gay stuff on all the pavement on campus, much of it clearly intended to shock or offend. I thought it was funny and was amused by the people who were offended by it.

    I don't think we had any specific rule against offending people, but there was a lot of serious talk when someone chalked some anti-gay stuff some time later. The world would be a lot better if everyone would stop going around looking for things to be offended by. I can only imagine that the idiot homophobes who go around writing "God hates fags" or whatever on liberal college campuses are encouraged and empowered by the freakouts and hurt feelings they cause. The best way to deal with bigotry is to laugh at it.

  • John Aronson||

    Public "higher education" has devolved into nothing more exalted than post-secondary school indoctrination facilities aimed at producing the next generation of elementarily school teachers, cops and prison guards. In other words, the bottom rung of the apparatchik hierarchy.

  • Zeb||

    I think that it is still something more than that. But I agree that to a large degree that is what is accomplished in higher education.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Take some online courses, have exams proctored by reliable people, and get a degree that way. It's the future. No worrying about paying extra to have the "campus experience," no hassle for saying something politically incorrect to another student or administrator, no problems scheduling demonstrations on school property.

    Problem solved, except for the "online harassment" rules.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The idea that colleges have EVER been bastions of free inquiry is largely a fantasy. They have always tended to enforce some kind of orthodoxy, and any exceptions are likely to be in periods of tradition from one orthodoxy to another. The scandal is that out colleges have been allowed to pretend otherwise for so long. It is another face of the poisonous fantasy that lack of bias in reporting is desirable or even possible. The same fantasy has been sold to the public regarding teaching, and so endless outrage is expended on biased teaching, and no energy is aimed at seeing that there are institutions that cover a spectrum of bias.

  • Square||

    Definitely some truth to that - the first colleges in Europe were started by the Catholic Church in order to combat the spread of Islamic heresies in Europe. Not even remotely about "free inquiry" - exactly the opposite in both intent and practice.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Then there was the period in English history when you were not allowed to attend the great universities unless you were prepared to pledge to Anglican orthodoxy. Funny how so many of the great minds of that era, like Joseph Priestly, were dissenters and denied a University education…...

  • Zeb||

    And for a long time no one could start another university in England.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Would it be considered a violation of the First Amendment if someone disrupted a biology class and screamed "you're going to hell Satanic NWO scum!!!" at the teacher for talking about evolution? I believe all schools should be privatized and I doubt any secular private school would allow such behavior so I don't see the problem with public schools (which, if they are to exist, can't have the same rules as public sidewalks) prohibiting the same as they sink into their own money pits.

    Why is it that Cato and Reason both generally advocate pragmatic, non-ideological laws against people having rock concerts at 3:00 a.m. yet they make a big deal about loony job-killing pro-lifers (I see free market abortions without government subsidies as a very, very good thing) not being able to waste campus space for their meetings?

  • Square||

    I can see what you're saying, and there is a certain failure to distinguish between enforcing certain pragmatic regulations involving other people's rights to, for example, listen to the teacher they are paying to teach the class and not have to strain to listen over heckling protestors who have broken into the classroom, and arbitrary suppression of certain ideas.

    However, in addition to the general grousing, there are a number of observations regarding the very real prior restrictions on everyone's speech on the typical modern college campus, regardless of whether that speech truly does interfere with other people's rights, and the enforcement of the rules is often, as the article observes, dependent on the content of the speech - and that absolutely is a First Amendment issue.

    In other words, if the creationist gets expelled from the biology class, but an LGBT activist disrupting a theology class doesn't get expelled, there is a First Amendment issue.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Again I don't believe that if public campuses are to exist that they should have the same sets of rules as a public sidewalk, and theology is not a real subject (at least no more than hunting ghosts or Santa Clause). I would consider interracial couples interrupting a class for the Aryan Nation/Nation of Islam type of religionists to be a necessity.

  • newshutz||

    Is this Shriek?

    Seems bad trolling even for it.

  • newshutz||

    "loony job-killing pro-lifers"

    Real good example of the progressive notion of diversity.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    I'm a reader. I've only commented on one other article. I'm not a progressive and there many pro-choice libertarians, though I am not an ideological libertarian. I'm a moderate classical liberal. Think former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson or economist John Stuart Mill (who lost it as he aged). If you read my comment you would know that I was coming from a free market angle.

    Free market abortion = no government subsidies or price controls (though I don't think people should be allowed to perform them in their garages with unsanitary and/or rusty equipment. I oppose occupational licensing not business licensing).

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    *and there ARE many pro-choice libertarians

  • DenverJay||

    Not saying that I am anti-abortion, nor wishing to start a theological argument. However, I do find it somewhat anti-libertarian to presume that you know the truth about when life begins, the reality or lack thereof of a deity, and therefore your right to declare that your opinions on these matters are what all people must abide by.
    As an avowed agnostic, by definition I must respect those whose opinions differ from mine on these matters, and accept the possibility that they may be right, unlikely as I may deem it. If there is a deity who imbues humans with an immortal soul (a proposition which cannot be disproved), and if life does begin at conception (which seems rather prima facie, although the argument perhaps should be about when humanness begins, not life), then, a libertarian would seem to have an obligation to oppose abortion, on the theory that abortion deprives a human of life, the most fundamental of all rights.
    Again, this is not what I believe, but I can definitely see why some libertarians would be anti-abortion.

  • DenverJay||

    In fact, now that I think about it, one could make a libertarian argument against abortion without recourse to religion at all. For instance, by noting the potential for a homo sapiens-sapiens zygote to mature into a fully self-aware, reasoning and thinking entity, capable of experiencing a full life of self-determination, joy, and freedom, I could see how a chain of logic could easily lead to the belief that any such potential is 'sacred' and must be protected.
    Again, I do not believe this, but only because such a potential life of a free being is weighed against an already existing, fully formed life of a free being, i.e. the mother.
    But that does not mean that the argument is not there to be made, and much better, by one who does believe this way.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    As i've said multiple times I do not follow the libertarian ideology. I'm a moderate classical liberal utilitarian (though i'm closer to an ideological libertarian than some pro-war objectivist), and I said nothing pertaining to when life begins though even if it really did start at conception I still stand by my original statements regarding free market abortion because trying to outlaw it would be extreme and impractical.

  • Mark22||

    "As i've said multiple times I do not follow the libertarian ideology. I'm a moderate classical liberal utilitarian"

    And the difference would be... nothing. Libertarianism is simply the modern US word for classical liberalism, because the word "liberal" has been co-opted by progressives and socialists in the US.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Classical liberal is a much broader term. All libertarians are classical liberals but not all classical liberals are libertarians.

    I don't believe unions or the minimum wage law should exist and i'm pro-NAFTA but i'm also for ENDA (not affirmative action just certain anti-discrimination laws) and laws prohibiting animal cruelty, therefor I am not a libertarian but a classical liberal.

  • Mark22||

    Read it again. Schools are not just restrictions on disrupting classes, they are enacting restrictions on any form of expression anywhere that might offend anyone, or at least members of select groups.

    For private schools, that's legal and should be legal (we can still criticize it). But as long as we have publicly financed schools, they should not be allowed to enact such restrictions. Maybe that will motivate progressives to start favoring private schooling.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Again I don't believe that public campuses should exist but if they do I don't believe they should have the same sets of rules as a public sidewalk. I would run a public campus the same way I would run a private run.

    Again that's why I call myself a classical liberal and not a libertarian.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    *if someone GOT SUSPENDED FOR disruptING a biology class and screamed "you're going to hell Satanic NWO scum!!!" at the teacher for talking about evolution?

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The first amendment recognizes freedom of speech, and of the press, and of religion. It does not promise you an audience, free printing, or a pulpit. Acquiring those is your lookout.

    Your right to speak does not trump the right to speak of somebody who has acquired his own podium. If you interrupt another's speech in a hall hired for his presentation, the ejecting you by the seat of your pants is not a violation of any rights of yours.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    I did not say free speech entitled you to an audience. I'm thinking of how a private secular college would generally run things. I believe college education should be 100% privatized. No loans. No handouts. No nothing from the government (i'm not against vouchers for private K-12 education for households that make less than a certain amount a year but that's it).

  • Square||

    The main trouble, in my opinion, is that universities have become glorified vocational schools. Since you don't learn anything in high school, college has (unnecessarily) become a pre-requisite to applying for most jobs worth having.

    The result is that people now feel they have a right to a college education, since their careers "depend" on it. College is no longer for just those curious, intellectually thick-skinned people to go off by themselves and have discussions about things that make other people uncomfortable.

    Now it is some sort of active persecution if anyone is prevented from getting a college degree by something tyrannical like having to hear ideas they don't instantly agree with.

    What we really need is for high schools to stop being such a waste of time, and for the private sector to stop placing so much consequence on a college degree over more relevant forms of experience. Then the life-stakes of going to/staying in college aren't so high, and the free flow of ideas, rather than job training, can become the focus again.

  • ||

    ModestoJunior College forbidding a student to distribute free copies of the Constitution — on Constitution Day.

    I can't decide if this is:

    A) Kafkaesque
    B) Orwellian
    C) both

  • Dave's not here||

    Dodgsonian

  • REMant||

    A good argument for "distance education"

  • REMant||

    Also reminds me that the president of Indiana University recently decided it was his duty to declare his institution in favor of gay marriage, so obviously some animals are more equal than others.

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    "Liberal" no longer means what it did over a century ago. Now it just means you're an arrogant jerk who likes to boss people around and take their stuff.

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