At University of Virginia the White Supremacists Have Already Won

College limits protest, suppressing everybody's free expression.


U.Va protest
Shay Horse/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom

If any state university is right to limit speech by members of the public on its grounds, the University of Virginia is that university. Last summer it played unwilling host to a mob of torch-bearing white supremacists shouting "Jews will not replace us!" and other repellent things.

The next day, demonstrations by more white supremacists at Lee Park in Charlottesville led to violent clashes with counterprotesters and the murder of Heather Heyer. It was a shocking episode that made news around the globe.

The reverberations are echoing still. The other day a group of recent graduates demanded that the school pay reparations to the injured. Last month U.Va. had to serve Jason Kessler, organizer of the Unite the Right rally, with a no-trespassing warning after students complained that he had threatened and bullied them, and his appearance at the Law School library caused a disturbance. Charlottesville also has rejected Kessler's request for a second Unite the Right rally for 2018. Kessler is suing over that.

So you can understand why the university has adopted a new policy restricting speech on the grounds by persons or groups not affiliated with the school. Under the new policy, those who wish to speak on the grounds may do so only in one of nine outdoor locations. Would-be speakers, pamphleteers, and the like must request a reservation at least seven days in advance (but no more than one month in advance), and the reservations are good only for two-hour blocks Monday through Friday. An applicant cannot make more than one reservation a week. Applicants cannot use a location that is in use by somebody else at the same time.

Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told the Charlottesville Daily Progress that last restriction effectively prohibits counter-demonstrations. This might be by design, given the melees that erupted last August. U.Va. president Teresa Sullivan says the new rules were made for safety's sake.

But again, if any public university is right to limit speech by outsiders, U.Va. is that university. There's just one thing: No public university is right to do so. Especially not U.Va..

Some certainly claim the authority to do so. U.Va. has carefully tailored its new restrictions to thread the constitutional needle. The Supreme Court forbids content-based restrictions on speech but allows restrictions on its time, place, and manner — so U.Va.'s policy announcement repeats the phrase "time, place, and manner" like a mantra. And the policy is, on its face, neutral: It will apply equally to the NAACP and the Klan, to abortion-rights groups and abortion opponents, and so on.

But it is not neutral on the broader question of speech generally: It comes down squarely in favor of limiting expressive activity by members of the public. It will reduce the opportunities for citizens to express themselves on what is, after all, public property.

In fact, it already has. When U.Va. grad Bruce Kothmann learned of the policy, he went to the Rotunda and read a Bible verse on the steps. When he returned the next day to read the same verses he reads each week at synagogue (Kothmann is Jewish), the police asked him to leave. The Rotunda, which U.Va. calls the architectural and academic heart of the university community, is now off-limits to the rest of the community: It is excluded from the list of designated speech zones for outsiders.

That means events such as the March 14 demonstration in support of gun control on the U.Va. Lawn would have to ban participation by outsiders. "U.Va. students, faculty, staff, and members of the local community participated in the National School Walkout exactly one month after the deadly attack at Marjory Stoneman High School in Florida," U.Va.'s news service reported at the time. So much for solidarity.

The Rotunda was designed by Thomas Jefferson, who founded the school. The university's web page devoted to the building includes a quote, famous to all U.Va. students and faculty, by Jefferson about U.Va.: "This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."

U.Va. even produces a publication "focused on showcasing the best of the University of Virginia" — called "Illimitable."

But the school has now decided the freedom of the human mind should have some limits after all, and that certain errors — and, for that matter, many great truths — should be tolerated only within strictly confined boundaries.

The irony is thicker than wet cement. U.Va.'s new policy is, literally, reactionary: It has come about in reaction to last summer's outrage. That outrage was perpetrated by a group of hooligans who reject tolerance, individual rights, personal freedom, and other core tenets of Enlightenment liberalism.

The greatest rebuke to such backward notions would involve strengthening the commitment to those values. Instead, the rise of right-wing illiberalism has fueled illiberalism on the left. The two feed off each other — and the values of classical liberalism go begging.

If any university should be standing up for those Jeffersonian values now, U.Va. is that university. Instead, it has chosen to back away from them.