At University of Virginia, Mike Pence event reignites a debate over free speech

An upcoming speech by former vice president Mike Pence at the University of Virginia has reignited a debate over free speech on the Charlottesville campus.

The response to the event has been intense: Tickets were quickly snapped up, with nearly 500 people on a standby list to get one. Some posters for the event were defaced, and others mocking it were taped up. An editorial in a campus newspaper said the university should not give a platform to Pence, equating “hateful rhetoric” to violence. That sparked outrage over “cancel culture,” limits on free speech and concerns about self-censorship.

At an event last week called, “What Should We Do About Free Speech at UVA?” panelists spoke to an audience of about 100 students, professors, alumni and others, with the university’s president emphasizing that protection of free speech should be about principles, not politics.

Pence is expected to speak at U-Va. on Tuesday as part of a national tour on college campuses sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation. At earlier stops, according to news reports, he has hailed the work of the Trump administration, while also decrying President Joe Biden and what Pence called the “woke left’s all-encompassing assault on culture and values.” His appearances have drawn some protests.

The debate over the appearance is especially complicated at U-Va., where the question of free speech is intricately bound up in both the foundations of the school and its recent past. Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder, wrote to “follow truth.” And not five years ago, white supremacists marched with torches on the campus, protected by the First Amendment.

Still top school leaders say the discussions over Pence’s scheduled speech serve to prove that diverging views are, in fact, welcome on the campus. “The exchange of ideas about Mr. Pence’s presence on Grounds is not a sign that free expression is dead on Grounds,” James Ryan, U-Va.’s president, and Ian Baucom, executive vice president and provost, wrote in the student newspaper the Cavalier Daily, “it’s a sign that it is alive and well.”

The fact that there has been such a robust conversation about the event, Ryan said in an interview, “to me, is heartening.”

Concerns about freedom of expression on university campuses across the country are widespread — and wide-ranging. Last month, student protesters disrupted events at Yale Law School on the East Coast and the University of California Hastings College of the Law on the West.

In some places, faculty worry that politicians are sharply limiting what they can discuss in classrooms. In others, students say they’re afraid to speak their minds. A national survey recently found that college students increasingly believe that free speech is threatened on campus.

And everywhere, the impact of social media — including the knowledge that an offhand remark could be recorded, broadcast and endure online indefinitely — is felt.

Too often now, rather than standing up and debating someone whose ideas seem threatening, people are trying to stop them from speaking, said Scott Walker, president of the Young America’s Foundation, which brings conservative speakers such as Pence to college campuses.

It’s a trend that’s “dangerous in terms of where we stand in America today and how we continue to protect our rights,” said Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin.

A growing majority of college students believe their school’s climate stifles free expression, according to a Knight Foundation-Ipsos study released earlier this year. In 2016, almost three quarters of students felt free-speech rights were secure. Today less than half do, the study found.

Those views reflect stark political and racial divides.

Two-thirds of Republican students polled in 2016 said that speech was secure — but that dropped to just over a quarter in the most recent survey.

White students were more likely to favor schools exposing students to all kinds of speech. Black students were more likely to say they have been made uncomfortable by others’ statements. And one in five students surveyed reported feeing unsafe on campus, particularly women and students of color.

“There’s no question that speech can hurt people, it can offend people, it can disparage people,” said Michelle Deutchman, executive director of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. But when people try to sanction certain kinds of speech, she said, the question quickly becomes: Who makes the decision?

The issue of free speech was already simmering at U-Va. in recent years.

In 2020 a student upset about white supremacy, Jefferson’s legacy as an enslaver and many other issues at the university put a sign on her door that cursed U-Va. — smack on the very Lawn Jefferson designed. Outcry led to some alumni to form a group called the Jefferson Council to promote free speech and other issues on campus. (They are helping to sponsor the Pence event.) Last month, Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin denounced cancel culture in higher education in a speech at U-Va. School of Law. An opinion piece ran in the New York Times by a U-Va. student who wrote, “I came to college eager to debate. I found self-censorship instead.”

Then came the announcement that Pence would “take a stand for America’s founding” at U-Va., following other appearances in recent months at the University of Iowa, Texas A&M University and Stanford University. According to the Stanford Daily, Pence talked about “How to Save America From the Woke Left,” at the school while protesters chanted outside and some heckled him from the audience.

A first-year student at U-Va. wrote in the Cavalier Daily in deeply personal terms about how unwelcome she had felt on campus, noting high rates of suicide attempts among gay young people, and said that Pence’s invitation should be rescinded.

The Cavalier Daily’s March 17 editorial, “Dangerous rhetoric is not entitled to a platform,” argued that “Speech that threatens the lives of those on Grounds is unjustifiable,” and “Hateful rhetoric is violent — and this is impermissible.” They criticized what they said were Pence’s views on gay and transgender people, immigrants and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Once “so-called politics turn into transphobia, homophobia and racism, they are no longer mere political beliefs — but rather bigotry that threatens the well-being and safety of students on Grounds,” they wrote.

Eva Surovell, the editor in chief of the Cavalier Daily, said that Pence coming to U-Va. is different than him visiting Stanford or any other college campus in America to talk about the Founding Fathers. During the editorial board meeting, she said she was wondering if neo-Nazis and white supremacists would feel more comfortable coming to campus because of the speakers given a platform at U-Va.

She said the issue of Pence speaking on campus was personal for many people on the paper’s editorial board, and they agreed that they had to say something about it.

The editorial sparked a backlash, including on the pages of the Cavalier Daily. Last week, a group of faculty members wrote a joint letter criticizing the editorial for equating Pence’s speech with violence, saying that argument contradicts the First Amendment and does a disservice to victims of real violence, such as those fighting in Ukraine. Quoting Jefferson, they wrote: “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.”

Nickolaus Cabrera, 20, a second-year student who is the chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom chapter at U-Va., said Pence’s views aren’t dangerous, but saying he’s not entitled to a platform is, because it threatens free speech. “That’s when it becomes dangerous. That’s when it becomes harmful.”

Cabrera said he joined the Young Americans for Freedom group as a haven because he has found the political climate on campus to be hostile. “Conservative students are ridiculed for simply expressing their opinion in the classroom,” he said.

The event is intended for students of all political persuasions to engage with conservative ideas, he said. Pence is someone he looks up to. “He’s a strong, he’s a principled conservative,” Cabrera said.

Max Bresticker, an opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily, wrote that Pence must be allowed to speak. “I do not care much for Pence and find many of his beliefs abhorrent,” he noted, but said that characterizing Pence’s values as violent begs the question “at what point do differences of opinion become harmful?”

National media coverage also followed, with Pence tweeting links to a Fox News story. In a tweet Friday, Pence said he was proud of Cabrera and the Young America’s Foundation chapter “for standing up for Freedom of speech!”

Ryan, U-Va.’s president, said some of the motivation for the students who wrote the Cavalier Daily editorial was to support students who had been marginalized, not just to cover their own ears and avoid hearing opposing views.

He said people often talk about freedom of speech as though there were a time in the past when it was truly free. But until recent decades, many people such as Black students and women were often excluded from college campuses and the conversations happening there.

Last summer, the university’s board of visitors adopted a statement on free expression and free inquiry, which includes the idea that all views deserve to be heard, a commitment that “underpins every part of the university’s mission.”

That’s something the university is working to foster, asking students to be empathetic speakers and generous listeners. It’s important, Ryan said, for students to learn how to respectfully engage with people and ideas they disagree with, on a campus with a very diverse population, “and to be a counterpoint to the intense polarization we see outside of universities.”

He argues that the debate around Pence’s speech shows some of those hard conversations are happening, and flourishing, on campus. “It’s wrong for people to think this should be simple,” he said. “It’s not simple.”