Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Michael Poliakoff: Freedom of speech must be protected

THE VIRGINIA PILOT   |  March 14, 2018 by Michael Poliakoff

IN 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the university he had founded: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left to combat it.”

Fast forward to Feb. 22, 2018. The spotlight is on the University of Virginia to see if it will honor its founder’s vision in the wake of a grave offense against campus freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech.

The evening started with a scheduled, thoughtfully conceived program called “Building Bridges,” designed to bring opposing viewpoints into respectful dialogue and intellectual exchange. It was, one might say, exactly what the founder of U.Va. and our nation’s third president would have wanted.

Yet the jarring reaction by some to this program, which included a panel featuring Israeli military reservists, highlighted a disturbing impediment to rational debate. A small group comprised of students and non-students decided that since it disagreed with the Israeli panelists’ viewpoints, it would come in with a megaphone and prevent the speakers from being heard.

U.Va.’s rabbi, Jake Rubin, asked the protesters to let the program proceed and respectfully invited them in to ask questions and engage in discussion with the panelists. But the “Building Bridges” plea for dialogue and inclusion was met with the “heckler’s veto,” whereby those who disagree with an idea shout it down and prevent any opportunity for discussion. Only after the campus police arrived could the panel discussion proceed.

Programs such as “Building Bridges” can only succeed if colleges and universities protect them by deterring people from attempting to use force to undermine the free exchange of ideas. The protesters’ goal was to censor the ideas from being spoken, heard or even thought.

In a scene that has become all too common on college campuses today, a group of students, claiming a higher standard of social or political understanding, violated the academic freedom and freedom of discussion that have been the glory of American higher education. And since U.Va. is a public university, bound by the First Amendment, those students also showed their contempt for a core value of our nation.

To his credit, U.Va.’s Dean of Students Allen Groves forcefully denounced this disgrace to the university and its values. He studied the video of the event and properly concluded that those who caused the disruption violated a number of U.Va.’s written policies. And to the extent that students were involved in these acts, U.Va. must punish those who violated its core principles, in order to discourage more such shout-downs and disruptions in the future.

U.Va. now has an opportunity to make a stand against the “heckler’s veto” by responding resolutely and suspending any students who participated in the disruption: an act that few institutions have had the courage to do, the failure of which contributes to the frequency with which such “vetoes” occur.

Several months ago, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU’s Virginia chapter, attempted to discuss free speech issues at William & Mary, which is, ironically, Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater. Students, claiming that the ACLU had protected white supremacy, shouted her down.

William & Mary’s president, W. Taylor Reveley III, scolded the offenders, but his aversion to imposing any disciplinary measures against this clear violation of William & Mary’s code of conduct was tantamount to saying that angry students get a pass for the worst kind of behavior. There have been too many examples across the nation of similar failure to take necessary disciplinary action.

Jefferson would certainly revel in U.Va.’s efforts to “build bridges” and perpetuate viewpoint diversity and the free exchange of ideas on which he founded the university. It remains to be seen whether U.Va. has the resolve to enforce its own stated principles with appropriate action when students violate them.

Michael Poliakoff, of Oakton, is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D.C.


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