UVa’s Lawn Signage Controversy Flares Anew

by James A. Bacon

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization dedicated to  defending freedom of expression and conscience on America’s college campuses, has sided with fourth-year student Hira Azher regarding her right to post political speech on the door of her room on the Lawn at the University of Virginia.

A new sign showed the grim reaper standing behind a hooded KKK figure and the Rotunda, along with a quote from Kwame Ture: “In order for non-violence to work your opponent must have a conscience,” and the words, “UVA HAS NONE,” and “BURN IT ALL DOWN.”

University leadership last week directed the Facilities Management Division to order Azher to take down the sign on the grounds that the phrase “burn it down” has the potential to provoke violence. “When free speech goes beyond mere advocacy of a particular point of view and directly promotes physical violence,” said the letter to Azher, “we can and will take action to restrict it.”

In a letter addressed to Gay Perez, assistant vice president of student affairs at UVa, FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh argued that Azher’s words did not amount to incitement and that, therefore, UVa’s order to remove the sign violated the First Amendment.

The display does not evidence an intent to direct others to engage in lawless action. Political discourse has long been steeped in themes of violence. Azher’s display follows in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson — UVA’s founder and a principal author of what ultimately became the First Amendment. …

Azher’s display cannot reasonably be read as a literal call for lawless action, but would instead reasonably be read as figurative and hyperbolic political rhetoric advocating for systemic change. The rhetorical call to “burn down” an institution is an oft-deployed rhetorical device, not advocacy of imminent arson. UVA’s interpretation of Azher’s display would place Azher in the unlikely position of advocating that readers raze the building in which she sleeps.

Azher gained notoriety last fall for posting a sign on the door of her room on the Lawn that stated in large bold letters that could be read from afar, “FUCK UVA.” In response to an outcry by numerous alumni (including myself), the university administration defended her right to free expression. Political signs and posters were proliferating on Lawn doors and singling out Azher’s sign would constitute a First Amendment violation, argued the university counsel Tim Heaphy. However, the university re-wrote the terms and conditions of residence on the Lawn restricting signage to a size that would fit on bulletin boards assigned to each residence. The restrictions would apply to all residents equally.

When I visited UVa Sunday, I toured the full length of the Lawn around noon and did not see Azher’s sign — I can only presume that she complied with the university’s order to take it down. However, I did see clusters of political flyers posted on a dozen or more doors. One calls for justice for Breonna Taylor, the Louisville, Ky., woman shot during a police raid on the wrong address. Another demands justice for Xzavier Hill, an 18-year-old Charlottesville man, who was shot and leading police on a high-speed chase and drawing a stolen gun on them after he crashed.

A third flyer declares, “F*CK TIM LONGO: UVA’s chief of police is a racist pig piece of sh!t. … Longo is a scourge on the UVA and Cville communities, and we want him out! No apologies. No replacements. No more bastard kops.”

Bacon’s bottom line. Well… this is awkward. I serve on the board of The Jefferson Council, a group organized to protect Thomas Jefferson’s legacy (including the Rotunda and Lawn as a World Heritage Site), the Honor Code, and freedom of speech and expression at the University of Virginia. We have been concerned about the climate of intellectual conformity and intolerance in which students, especially conservatives, have been reluctant to speak openly about politically sensitive topics. Azher’s “FUCK UVA” sign was the trigger that got the movement going. Now an outside organization, FIRE, which has frequently stood up for conservative voices on college campuses, has intervened on her side.

So, how do we square the knot? How do we insist that Azher’s radical Leftist signs — and the political flyers of unknown authorship — have no place on the Lawn even while we decry the suppression of conservative viewpoints and defend free speech?

I speak for myself here, not for The Jefferson Council, which has not yet formulated a position.

FIRE is mistaken. Mr. Steinbaugh does not appear to be fully familiar with the controversy. No one is suppressing Azher’s right to free speech. She is free to express herself on Twitter all she wants (as in fact she has done). Or to post her views on Facebook. Or to publish her own website. Or to march and demonstrate, or to write letters to the Cavalier Daily. She will suffer no repercussions for expressing her views.

The limitation on the form of her expression applies to all residents of the Lawn equally. She is not being singled out for the content of her speech, but the fact that she is violating the terms and conditions of her residence. As the landlord, UVa has the every right to regulate displays on Lawn doors.

The Lawn and Rotunda comprise a World Heritage Site, which is defined in Wikipedia as a “landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).” Other World Heritage Sites range from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, to the Taj Mahal in India, the Statue of Liberty in New York to Mji Mkongwe, the old town of Zanzibar. World Heritage Sites are cultural treasures that should be maintained for the benefit of all mankind. It is axiomatic that tourists will come visit them — as they certainly do at the University of Virginia.

The U.N. publishes a manual, “Management Guidelines for World Cultural Heritage Sites,” to provide guidance for how to manage the sites. The authors suggest that site managers should ensure that litter is cleaned up, but they do not address the issue of profanity or political flyers. It likely never occurred to them that authorities would allow sites to be desecrated in the way the UVa has permitted!

It is the University’s job to maintain standards on the Lawn appropriate for a World Heritage Site. And that means imposing reasonable terms and conditions in residence contracts restricting the display of trashy paper fliers of any kind on Lawn doors, and especially the display of profanity that is disrespectful of the place.

All fliers on the Lawn should come down, no matter what political statements they convey. If Hira Azher wants to move to conventional student housing and plaster her door with signs, flyers and profanity, that is a different matter entirely. By no stretch of the imagination are the Old Dorms or New Dorms (or whatever they are called today) world heritage sites. Different standards may apply.

The University administration made a mistake justifying its order to Azher on the grounds that her poster might provoke violence. The rhetoric, though highly inflammatory, did not represent a literal call to arson. I agree with FIRE that such grounds are insufficient for compelling her to remove the signage.  

Now University administrators are confronted with the ugly paper flyers pasted on a dozen doors. They are political, they are profane, and they violate the university’s new policy restricting the size and placement of signage. But they contain no language than can be remotely interpreted as calling for violence. What will the university do now?

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