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On This Date In Campus Freedom: Council of Presidents Commits to Protecting Free Speech

December 23, 2023

On December 23, 2022, the Virginia Council of Presidents, a group of 39 college and university presidents in the state, released a statement affirming free speech. The first lines of the statement read, “As presidents of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, we unequivocally support free expression and viewpoint diversity on our campuses. Free expression is the fundamental basis for both academic freedom and for effective teaching and learning inside and outside the classroom.”

This was a welcome development. Despite producing two of America’s fiercest defenders of free speech, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson (the latter of whom founded the University of Virginia in 1819), Virginia’s higher education institutions do not always live up to their duty to protect constitutional freedoms. In April 2023, students disrupted a pro-life speaker at Virginia Commonwealth University, and two protesters were arrested on charges of simple assault and disorderly conduct. In the days before Mike Pence was scheduled to speak at the University of Virginia, posters advertising the speech were ripped down, and the editor of the university’s student newspaper chastised university leadership for allowing the event to proceed in an article titled, “Dangerous rhetoric is not entitled to a platform.”        

With its free speech statement, the members of the Virginia Council of Presidents recognized the serious free expression challenges afflicting Virginia’s campuses. In an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch announcing the new statement, higher education leaders Jonathan Alger, Shannon Kennedy, Katherine Rowe, and Timothy Sands wrote, “Our 39 public institutions are committed to action. Students, faculty and staff will see a renewed focus on participatory citizenship, free expression and the purposeful inclusion of disparate viewpoints.”

The state of Virginia has made admirable efforts to uphold free expression in public education. On November 28, 2023, Governor Glenn Youngkin addressed an assembly of higher education leaders, exhorting them to improve the climate for free speech on campus. And at ACTA’s 2023 Alumni Summit on Free Expression, Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera encouraged alumni to advocate for free expression and intellectual diversity on campus.

It is up to university leadership to make the spirit of the free speech statement a reality by implementing policies and practices that protect the First Amendment and foster open inquiry.


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