What the Free Speech Committee Should Have Written

by Walter Smith

Last week the University of Virginia Board of Visitors approved a statement produced by the Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry (See “UVa Affirms Commitment to Free Speech…. at Least in Theory.) This is what the statement should have said:

Free speech has been the bedrock of the University of Virginia from its founding and shall be as long as it shall exist.

The right to speak freely, without fear of recrimination for stating an unpopular view, is the exception in history. Tyrants in all aspects of life — governmental, civic, economic and academic — seek to suppress speech with which they disagree. Yet the answer to speech that offends is more speech. Our founder, Thomas Jefferson, the “author of liberty,” dreamed of a University  where “…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.”

In the “marketplace of ideas” which should represent the intellectual rigor of academia, freedom of speech is a right which requires zealous protection. All members of the University – students, faculty, employees, alumni, friends and members of the leadership – have an absolute right to express their opinions without fear of retaliation aimed at the speaker. We believe ideas should be attacked and challenged in a true spirit aimed at pursuing truth.

Attacking a speaker instead of the ideas expressed demeans this precious right and is ultimately destructive to a society based on liberty and self-governance. This right should be exercised responsibly, with an aim to persuasion. The laws of the United States and its various States do recognize some limitations on speech, but these limits at the University shall be applied as narrowly as is reasonable.

Free speech is celebrated and practiced at the University of Virginia and we welcome all to pursue truth with us.

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