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Freedom of Expression

By: Emilie Erbland, Lead Writer with Kay Dervishi, Managing Editor


This semester both student governments officially supported an initiative for the University of Richmond to create a policy on free expression, the question about the role of free speech became all the more prominent on campus. On Sept. 11, 2018, a group of conservative and libertarian law students invited a writer named Ryan Anderson to the T.C. Williams School of Law to talk about his book, “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.” The book has been denounced as “junk science” harmful to the transgender people, while celebrated by many conservatives. Protesters dressed in white came to the event carrying signs of transgender people who have been killed or committed suicide because of bigotry.

And then, in December of 2018, sociology professor Eric Grollman leaked a Snapchat video in which UR students threw a gingerbread house deco- rated with a frosting swastika out a window. According to the police report, the students had drawn it because “both students did not like what it represents.” An email sent by President Ronald Crutcher assured the campus community that the students’ actions “[would] not be condoned” and promised further work to “ensure opportunity for people of all faiths and backgrounds to thrive.”

Both events, to varying degrees, rose the question — where is the university’s place to step in on matters related to free expression, especially when bigotry is involved? Alec Greven, the executive secretary of the Richmond College Student Government Association who initiated the student government proposal, said his plan would add clarity to this question. He pointed out that certain phrasing in the UR student handbook, which prohibits “disruptions,” and “interruptions,” is too vague and may be vulnerable to abuse by the administration. Greven was careful to make a distinction: “We don’t believe the current administration will take action to silence students, we just want to put this initiative in place to prevent it from ever happening in the future.”

RCSGA first proposed “A Resolution Concerning Free Expression” in April 2018, which called for “the administration of the University of Richmond to take immediate steps to develop a comprehensive policy on freedom of expression.” The resolution states that “the University of Richmond does not have a clearly defined policy on free expression” and points to the University of Chicago’s free expression commitment as a standard. RCSGA, as well as the Westhampton College Government Association, ended up passing Greven’s resolution last semester, but it stalled when it reached the University Faculty Senate. The president of the Faculty Senate, Jane Berry, withdrew a motion to create a task force for developing a new free speech policy in November 2018.

One of the reasons for the opposition came from Grollman, the professor who leaked the Snapchat video of the gingerbread house.

“As we have already consistently invited conservative, bigoted, and offensive speakers to campus with no ‘uncivil’ disruption, I wonder whose speech is currently constrained on campus (the short answer: members of minority groups),” they wrote in an email to faculty.

“UR doesn’t have to follow suit with other universities that have adopted this problematic policy,” the email ended. “I highly recommend checking out how Colgate recently passed a policy that attempts to avoid pitting “free speech” against inclusivity ... I do not want to see us rush to pass this problematic policy — we need to assess the problem before coming up with the solution.”

Greven noted the concerns of faculty. “Some faculty oppose [the resolution] principally — they don’t believe there’s any problem, and then there’s some that just oppose it procedurally,” Greven said. Regarding the withdrawn motion, he said he was “trying to work with the administration to form a task force as soon as possible to address the issue.”

Anderson’s talk in the law school showed how the wide acceptance of free speech could come at the cost of allowing for speech harmful to minority groups on campus. Liam Lassiter, a member of the University’s LGBTQ group, treasurer of SCOPE and one of Richmond’s few transgender students, helped organize a protest against Anderson’s lecture.

“To me it seemed like [the university] failed that barrier that was supposed to protect students like me,” Lassiter said. “I wasn’t so much protesting his presence so much as the University thinking it was okay that his talk was a point of learning. I didn’t feel endangered but I definitely felt like I wasn’t a person.”

Wendy Purdue, the dean of the law school, has stated that the law school administration does not pre-clear speakers invited by students. Responding to the controversy, she wrote that “as an academic institution, we’re committed to open and robust discussion” and noted that the students who invited the speaker had also “invited a faculty member to respond to Mr. Anderson’s remarks.”

On Ryan Anderson’s lecture about transgender policy, Greven said: “If they had banned him from speaking, he would have been martyred — if [we] allow him to speak in relative obscurity and challenge his beliefs as wrong, they will be further and further diminished.”

Amid these events, much of the Sharp Viewpoint speaker series for this school year has been neatly tailored to meet the atmosphere on campus. The University of Chicago president himself, Robert Zimmer, came to discuss the school’s free speech policy supported by Greven in February 2019. Zimmer made headline news in 2016 when his welcome letter to new students at the University of Chicago read: “We do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” President Crutcher voiced his support for Zimmer’s message.

“As an educational institution, our mission is to ensure that we empower them — both students as well as faculty and staff — that they learn how to be empowered and learn how to find and use their voices,” Crutcher said. “I think it is important for the health of our democracy.” Crutcher has previously boasted about the university’s success in fostering space for free expression and his interest in protecting speakers of diverse viewpoints on campus.

“Colleagues I know and respect have been blindsided by active disruptions of campus programs and forced to confront bullies who aim to restrict the very freedoms they claim to cherish,” he wrote in The Hechinger Report in last summer. “Our mission, as academic institutions, is to stand up to this dangerous brand of civic chicanery. ... When we welcome speakers espousing all viewpoints into our classrooms and lecture halls, we must fearlessly defend their right to be here.”

Social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt also presented a lecture entitled “Fostering Viewpoint Diversity in Higher Education” in September 2018, where he said that the rise of safe spaces, trigger warnings and restrictive campus speech codes is correlated with a rise in reported anxiety, depression and self-harm in college students. Haidt’s book, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure” is co-authored by Greg Lukianoff. Lukianoff is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization whose “mission is to defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities.” FIRE assigns and maintains a system to rate the freedom of expression on college campuses across the country. While the University of Richmond was previously rated as a “red light” institution, meaning that the university’s policies were not conducive of full freedom of expression, the rating has since been changed to a “yellow light,” meaning that improvements are being made but students still do not possess their full rights under the First Amendment. This FIRE rating also had served as inspiration for Greven to pursue his amendment.

These discussions became even more pronounced when the university planned several more events specifically to start a more active discussion of free speech in the spring semester. The first was a crowded town hall meeting on freedom of expression with students, faculty and members of the media voicing their opinions on a panel leading up to Zimmer’s talk. Among the panel participants was Grollman, who criticized the university’s focus on freedom of expression and claimed that more discussion is needed elsewhere.

“This conversation is a distraction from the issues that sort of brought this about — I want to talk about racism,” Grollman said. “There are students who don’t feel safe enough to even begin to learn in the first place.” Despite the many events discussing the issue — including a “Forum at the Forum” and another panel featuring an author — and a president who seems to support some form of amendment supporting free speech, the university has continued to hold off on even creating a task force to officially consider the matter.

Editor’s note: Kay Dervishi was a member of the panel that voiced its opinions on free speech in the town hall meeting spring semester, presenting her views and experiences as a student journalist.