Dear President Ryan, Provost Magill, Rector Clement and the University Board of Visitors:
The desecration of Lawn rooms didn’t even take a week to start this year. Hector Tarrazas Valencia’s door is pictured above. We all suffered through an entire semester of Hira Azher’s obscene “F-UVA” sign last year, which was quickly replicated by several other Lawn room residents. If Mr. Valencia’s equally crass screed against the University is not removed immediately with the unequivocal message sent from the Administration that these messages will not be tolerated, there is no doubt that many more will proliferate – on the Lawn and elsewhere.
In response to the Lawn signs from last year, the Administration published a “2021-2022 Addendum to the Terms and Conditions for Lawn and Range Residents” last spring, and it was represented on your behalf that the new terms would assure no recurrence of the Azher episode. (https://housing.virginia.edu/housing-terms-lawn-range). I have included an excerpt from this addendum below:
“The Academical Village – the Rotunda, Lawn and Range rooms, hotels, gardens, and pavilions – is an area of historic and architectural significance that serves as the centerpiece of the University. The beauty and historical significance of the Academical Village is reflected in its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Lawn is also the backdrop for many University events and draws visitors from around the world. It is a place visited by school children who are seeing a college campus for the first time, and a place where grandparents picnic with their grandchildren. It also regularly draws many local families and young children, including on Halloween when hundreds of children from the Charlottesville area trick or treat on the Lawn. It is a place that is a residence, but it is also the heart of the University. Lawn and Range residents should respect the unique nature of this space and use and maintain their rooms and exterior areas with appropriate care and consideration of others.”
Mr. Valencia read the criteria for Lawn room residents above when he submitted his application. His “F-UVA” message painted on his bulletin board shows a complete lack of respect for the “unique nature of this space” as well as a total disregard for the “care and consideration of others.” There is no room for equivocation with that conclusion. He violated the rules for continued residence on the Lawn his first week of class. What specific actions will the Administration take to rectify this? A precedent must be set that will ensure all current and future Lawn residents know such acts will simply not be tolerated. This is not a “First Amendment Rights” issue. Mr. Valencia brazenly violated the Housing contract he just signed, agreeing to adhere to its regulations.
There are two recent precedents taken by the Administration that resulted in the suspension of students for serious infractions of University regulations:
- The Administration enforced its COVID vaccination mandate for all incoming students by disenrolling 238 students last week (https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/20/us/uva-disenrolling-students-vaccine/index.html) who were not vaccinated. These students cannot attend any classes until they can show proof of vaccination. I am not citing this action to endorse any position on the vaccination issue. The issue is irrelevant, the enforcement actions taken are germane. The swift disenrollment of the offending students proves that when the University establishes mandatory regulatory criteria for the student body that it considers serious, the Administration is willing to take immediate and consequential action against the offending students.
- In a well-publicized incident that is now embroiled in the courts, the University Medical School banned Med student Kieran Bhattacharya from attending classes a few weeks after he challenged an Assistant Dean’s definition of microaggression in a panel discussion (https://reason.com/2021/04/07/microaggressions-uva-student-kieran-bhattacharya-threat/). The university also cited other inflammatory social media behavior committed by Mr. Bhattacharya, branding him a “threat to the University.” Mr. Bhattacharya sued the University claiming his “First Amendment rights” were violated.
The University counsel refused to remove Hira Azher’s “F-UVA” Lawn room sign last year since doing so would “violate her First Amendment rights.” Conversely, I will quote two statements from the University’s legal defense team justifying their decision to ban Mr. Bhattacharya from attending Med School classes:
- “Offensive student speech does not enjoy First Amendment protection” and
- “Student speech that was disrespectful and rude” should be appropriately sanctioned by the University.
These representations were made to the Court by Counsel for the University who is bound by VCA §801-271.1.B and Rule 1:4(a) of the Supreme Court of Virginia to make truthful representations in his or her pleadings.
President Ryan, Provost Magill, Rector Clement and the Board of Visitors: which is it?
The position that the University has taken in the Bhattacharya case denying First Amendment protection while abetting the defacing of our historic Lawn with profanity characterized by the Administration as “free speech” cannot both stand. The fact that they have both been held out as University positions is utter hypocrisy – indeed, dishonesty.
A Medical School assistant professor filed a “professionalism concern card” against Mr. Bhattacharya over a philosophical disagreement he had with another professor in a public panel discussion regarding her definition of microaggression, about which there are a myriad of opinions. He was later summarily barred from attending classes, ostensibly also due to other social media infractions he had committed. I have listened to the video from the panel discussion and, although Mr. Bhattacharya was certainly blunt conveying his opinions, he was also professionally polite and courteous. Conversely, Mr. Valencia’s “offensive student speech that is disrespectful and rude” is patently evident to anyone who understands the meaning of the verb used in his message.
In addition to the Lawn room regulations cited earlier, we are all aware that the Lawn is a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are specific criteria regarding the protection of these sites with individual criminal responsibility cited in Section VII of the “UNESCO Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage”: http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=17718&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html. For example, in April 2001 a man was charged with harming “US property and related historical damage” for striking the Liberty Bell, another UNESCO site. Local jurisdictions are responsible for enforcing these laws (https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93627&page=1). Therefore, Mr. Valenzia could also be charged by the Administration for defacing the Lawn room door under these historical site criteria.
I am a co-founder of The Jefferson Council. Our four core principles are straightforward:
- Promote an academic environment based on open dialogue throughout the University.
- Preserve the Jefferson Legacy.
- Preserve the appearance of the Lawn as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- Support and reinvigorate the Honor System.
Our senior officers have had several conversations with Administration officers, the Rector, and Alumni Association Executive Director over the past several months. We have been told that there is complete congruence with these principles. That is comforting, but agreement without action means nothing.
We remain hopeful that we can work with you all to restore decorum and civility on the Grounds, improve true intellectual diversity among students and faculty, while restoring the traditions we alumni/ae hold dear. We trust that the Administration will take swift action against Hector Tarrazas Valencia that is severe enough to ensure the desecration of the Lawn never occurs again.
I respectfully ask for a response at your earliest convenience to our positions and request. Thank you for listening.
Thomas M. Neale
Co-Founder of The Jefferson Council