Former Vice President Mike Pence is set to speak at the University of Virginia on April 12, invited by the university's chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. Normally, a former government official addressing interested students at a public college would be an unremarkable event. However, the editorial board of The Cavalier Daily—the student-run paper at UVA—has declared Pence's event to be a crisis. This week, the board published an editorial arguing that Pence's presence on campus will "threaten the lives" of UVA students, claiming that it amounts to "bigotry that threatens the well-being and safety of students on Grounds." Not only do they call on the university to not "platform" Pence due to his political beliefs—something that would be explicitly illegal because UVA is a public university—they also argue that those beliefs constitute a physical threat to the safety of UVA students.
As a former opinion writer for the paper and a current student at UVA, I am disappointed that a group of aspiring journalists would mount such an attack on free speech.
It is too easy to dismiss the editorial as simply the rumblings of college students, who often write unreasonable things and have outlandish opinions. I don't think my classmates' current views should follow them after graduation, nor should they be subject to an online pile-on because of them.
However, I do want to take them seriously. This is the latest incident in a troubling trend seeping its way into every corner of the public sphere: Labeling certain types of political speech as dangerous, even when the speaker doesn't incite violence. Not only is this a dull strategy, but it also destroys our ability to make meaningful statements about political problems.
The editorial board writes "For us, the answer is simple. Hateful rhetoric is violent — and this is impermissible." They insist that there is no space at UVA for "rhetoric that directly threatens the presence and lives of our community members. The LGBTQ+ individuals Pence has attacked, the Black lives he refuses to value and the successful stories of immigration he and the former president hope to prevent…"
It is possible to criticize someone's ideas without claiming that their mere articulation physically endangers the people who hear them. We should reserve the label of "violence" for physical bodily harm—anything else deliberately muddles the word's meaning and prevents us from speaking clearly about actual persecution.
Emotional discomfort is one thing, and a threat to human life is another. Consider as an example the harsh state-sponsored persecution of LGBT people in Brunei, where gay sex became a crime punishable by stoning in 2019. It's fair to describe this law as one that "threatens the lives" of LGBT Bruneians, because it literally, clearly does. When we similarly describe the presence of a homophobic speaker on an American college campus as life-threatening, we obfuscate what actually endangers LGBT Americans. These two situations are clearly not the same thing in effect or under law, yet the emerging new norm supported by The Cavalier Daily treats them as indistinguishable.
Defining "violence" to encompass actions that emphatically aren't violent is not restricted to college newspapers. From a New York Times column to a leading journalist, the idea that hurtful or offensive speech constitutes violent action is gaining traction and making it even more difficult to discern reality from exaggeration.
In a recent editorial, the New York Times editorial board argued that "free speech demands a greater willingness to engage with ideas we dislike and greater self-restraint in the face of words that challenge and even unsettle us." I voiced similar concerns in my opinion essay published earlier this month.
If we want the words we use to hold meaning, we must resist the urge to cast nonviolent speech as violence. While relying on hyperbole to criticize another's views may have noble intentions, it is a lazy tactic that clouds discussion. Labeling spoken ideas and beliefs as violent doesn't make these ideas and beliefs easier to refute; it shows that you are refusing to engage in controversial debate. The Cavalier Daily can criticize Pence's political beliefs without claiming he poses a threat to UVA students. It's more work, of course, but if the paper aims to influence its readers, it's also worth the effort.