Pence Visit to Grounds Underscores Ongoing Discourse About Free Speech

April 12, 2022 By McGregor McCance, McGregor McCance,

Free expression literally took center stage at the University of Virginia on Tuesday night, as former Vice President Mike Pence delivered remarks in Old Cabell Hall during a visit hosted by the student chapter of Young Americans for Freedom at UVA.

The issue of free expression already was in the spotlight before Pence’s visit, as a running debate over his scheduled appearance and the larger issue of speech on college campuses across America has gathered momentum in recent months.

Pence used his time Tuesday night to extol the importance of free speech, to encourage young people to get involved in politics and public service, and to promote a set of traditional conservative values that have characterized his political career.

During his speech and a follow-up Q&A with audience members, Pence’s comments included, but didn’t dwell on, the announced theme of his visit: “How to Save America From the Woke Left.”

“The antidote to cancel culture is freedom,” he said. “The antidote to woke America is freedom.”

Pence also frequently invoked Thomas Jefferson – quoting him several times and including a reference to Wednesday as the celebration of Jefferson’s birthday, known on Grounds as Founder’s Day – and said UVA students have a connection to the origin of American democracy that few other university students enjoy.

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Mike Pence speaks from a podium at center stage in a crowded auditorium
Pence drew a large crowd that appeared to fill Old Cabell Hall. Asked in the Q&A portion of the event if he would run for president, Pence answered, “I’ll keep you posted.”

“Wrap your minds and your hearts around the founding documents of this country,” Pence said. “The truth is the Hoos have a special connection to the Declaration of Independence. That means you have a special connection to one of the greatest documents in human history. That’s your heritage. And it’s yours to share and to protect and to hold.”

Ticket holders filled the Old Cabell Hall auditorium, which has a normal event capacity of 851, to hear Pence, who attracted regional and national media. C-SPAN carried his remarks live.

Unlike at some of Pence’s other visits to college campuses in recent months, there were no disruptions, protests or interruptions in the auditorium.

Outside Old Cabell Hall, officials designated an area near the Homer statue for protestors to gather, but only two women carrying signs ventured into the space. They left at 7:15 p.m. A few dozen students sat quietly on the grassy steps of the Lawn, many holding hand-drawn posters supporting the LGBTQ community.

Elaina Bowman, a second-year student from Winchester, wore a gay pride flag like a cape and passed out fliers outlining Pence’s voting record.

“I think it is unfair Mike Pence is being given a platform because he has discriminated against LGBTQ community members, against women’s choice, and just discriminated against people in general,” Bowman said. “I would want to tell him it is not just an idea he is against; he is against me and my friends.”

Asked during the Q&A portion of the program what he would do if a family member told him they were gay, Pence replied, “I’d look them in the eye and tell them, ‘I love you.’” He added that he respects that same-sex marriage is legalized, for example, but said his personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman.

“The way we come together as a country united is when we respect your right to believe and my right to believe what we believe,” he said.

In the days leading up to the visit, passions rose in anticipation of the former vice president’s appearance, with his visit serving as a kind of fulcrum for a growing debate about how threatened free speech might be at UVA and elsewhere.

“I heard there was a little controversy preceding my visit,” Pence said to laughter. He also thanked the crowd for its civility, as well as the University administration.

Many faces in the audience smile. A banner in the auditorium reads #onlyatYAF "
Audience members listen as former Vice President Pence delivers remarks in Old Cabell Hall.

Days before the visit, UVA President Jim Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom co-wrote an op-ed published by The Cavalier Daily student newspaper in which they said the debate about Pence’s visit to Grounds showed that freedom of expression is “alive and well” here.

“Mr. Pence’s visit – like that of every other prominent speaker or professor who visits Grounds – is an opportunity to listen and grow in our understanding of a particular perspective on the future of our nation and our world,” they wrote. “It is also an opportunity to make a case against that vision.” 

Last June, UVA’s Board of Visitors endorsed a statement unequivocally affirming the freedom of expression and inquiry on Grounds.

In the ensuing months, intensity around the issue has only grown – on Grounds, on campuses across the country, and in clashing political narratives around “woke mobs,” “cancel culture” and book banning, along with what subjects are appropriate to teach in public schools, among other topics.

Not surprisingly, the UVA community at times has assumed center stage in this national discussion important to democracy, providing a lens through which some could affirm their belief in a widening cancel culture, others could cite as proof of the modern vigor of free expression, and perhaps others might see threads of truths from both ends of the spectrum.

A sample of locally generated commentary:

  • The Cavalier Daily’s editorial board argued that Pence’s views were so extreme that the former vice president didn’t deserve a UVA platform for his views.
  • A group of “concerned faculty” at UVA responded with a critical letter to the editor, a missive that drew a response from a second group of “supportive faculty.”
  • In an essay in the New York Times, UVA fourth-year student Emma Camp described a culture on Grounds characterized by self-censorship.
  • In an op-ed originally published in Inside Higher Ed, Ryan and Baucom offered ideas on the role universities can play in addressing cancel culture.

A glance online shows that the continuing debate about free speech at UVA has generated dozens of news articles, editorials and commentaries in publications and on news sites from the Richmond Times-Dispatch to the Washington Post, from Fox News to The Atlantic.

On Tuesday, Pence focused often on his call for students and other young people to get involved and engage with others. Asked for advice on how Americans can address what appears to be an inability to discuss or appreciate cultural or ideological differences, Pence said a healthy Democracy depends on “heavy of doses” of civility.

“As you stand for your values, do so with gentleness and respect,” he said. “That’s how we move our country forward.”

Pence’s speech was the most recent he has delivered at a college campus as part of the Young America’s Foundation’s Advancing Freedom Lecture Series. He previously spoke at Stanford University, Texas A&M University and at the University of Iowa.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter at the UVA Center for Politics, said Pence’s speaking schedule keeps him “in the news and relevant as the next presidential election season approaches.”

Former President Donald Trump, to whom Pence served as vice president, leads 2024 Republican presidential primary polls, Kondik said. And when pollsters have asked who is favored if Trump does not run, Republicans so far have listed Pence second, behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Pence has strong name identification with voters, but Kondik said “his current position is not particularly strong.” And as far as his place in a GOP in which Trump’s influence remains dominant? Well, it’s complicated.

“Pence was almost always extremely loyal to Trump – sycophantic even, at times – but Pence also did not give Trump what he wanted on Jan. 6, 2021 [the date of the attack on the Capitol] and Trump is very quick to turn on subordinates and allies,” Kondik said. “I also think that Pence, who is a strong social conservative and deeply religious, may turn off some Trump Republicans or even swing voters in a general election, some of whom were attracted to Trump’s irreverence and lack of outward religiosity as compared to other Republicans.” 

Not surprisingly, an audience member asked if Pence plans to run for president in 2024.

“I’ll keep you posted,” Pence replied, drawing laughter.

Mike Mather contributed to this report.

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McGregor McCance

Darden School of Business Executive Editor