Addressing Free Speech and the University

Arial view of the Rotunda at sunset on a cloudy day

Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications

The following statement was issued by President Jim Ryan on Sept. 20:

I have received a lot of inquiries and emails about a sign on a student’s Lawn-room door, and many have been asking what I think about all of it.  I apologize for not commenting sooner, but it has been an extraordinarily busy week, given the start of the school year and the ongoing and challenging pandemic.  I also wanted a chance to speak with the student to hear her views and to share my own and what I have been hearing from others.

I understand and appreciate the concerns expressed, given the Lawn’s role in the life of the University and the place it occupies in the hearts of many in our community and among our alumni.  The profanity on the sign is offensive and, in many ways, disheartening.  That said, as our legal counsel has confirmed, there is no doubt that the speech on the sign is protected by the First Amendment.  We allow students to post signs on their Lawn-room doors, and to remove this sign because of its content would run afoul of the Constitution and our own commitment to protecting free speech.  The right to free speech in public spaces in this country is robust and protects speech that is profane, as well as speech that is offensive, even intentionally so.

The answer to speech that offends is more speech.  Here, the temptation will be to pick sides – with some denouncing and some defending the sign.  Evidence of this already exists.  But I would hope this might instead lead to real conversations about why this sign, in this place, at this time?  As a member of this community for over 30 years, one of the things I love about it is that we are bound not just to this physical place but, more so than most universities, we are committed to this community – bound, in a sense, to each other.  Like most large families, we do not always agree, and we sometimes sharply disagree.  But at our best, we try to understand each other and find some common ground.  Holding together through strong disagreement, seeking a way to understand perspectives very different from one’s own, having honest if difficult conversations – that is the foundation of a genuinely strong community, which I have always believed UVA, at its best, to be.

Our University, like every institution, is a work in progress.  My desire and that of leaders around the University is to continue the work of making this University both great and good.  That entails being honest about our past, embracing the work ahead, and understanding that even those who are critical care deeply about this University.  But it also means recognizing and celebrating, without apology, what is already great and good about this remarkable University.  And it means acknowledging, with humility and gratitude, the efforts and progress of prior administrations, faculty, students, and devoted alumni, and doing our best to build on that progress.  We remain committed, as I have said on previous occasions, to the imperfect pursuit of high ideals.  We may stumble along the way, and we may disagree about particular decisions or the best path to choose. But the pursuit itself remains a worthwhile one, and it is one I look forward to continuing with all of you.


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