Sign Standards for UVa’s Lawn Upheld

No longer allowed

by James A. Bacon

No longer will it be permissible for residents of the University of Virginia’s rooms on the Law to post large signs on their doors proclaiming, “F— UVA,” as a Lawn resident did last semester. Under new policies issued by the University administration, Lawn residents will have to confine their profane proclamations to within the borders of two message boards, reports the Cavalier Daily.

In a collective statement to the student newspaper, several Law residents criticized the new rules as prejudicial against students of color. The restriction, said the statement, will result in “increased surveillance,” which in turn will “inherently harm and endanger the most marginalized and vulnerable students in this space.”

“This policy displays the extent to which the University is selective about who can exercise free speech and the content of that expression. Evidently, BIPOC students and allies cannot be critical of the University while simultaneously living on the Lawn.”

The controversy arose last fall when UVa alumnus Bert Ellis spotted the “F— UVA” sign on the door of Lawn resident Hira Azher and complained to President Jim Ryan. Ellis was backed by hundreds of other alumni who saw the sign not only as troubling in its own right but as highly inappropriate for a public venue such as the Lawn, an architectural masterpiece, designated a United Nations World Heritage site, that families and their children come to visit.

Ryan declared the sign, and others that popped up in support of Azher, to be “deeply disappointing,” but said he could not order students to take them down without violating their first amendment rights. Any remedy would have to apply to all students equally. The new restrictions come in the form of an addendum to the Terms and Conditions for Lawn and Range Residents, Housing and Residence Life.

“Any materials placed on the message boards must fit within the four corners of each message board and cannot extend beyond the outer edges of any such board,” the addendum reads. “Paper materials or other items may not be placed on Lawn or Range room doors, the doorway, shutters, or the brick areas outside the room except on the message boards as described above.”

The Lawn residents’ statement to the Cavalier Daily disputed the idea that their signs were incompatible with the Lawn’s status as a World Heritage site. “Our signs, more than any other effort of this University, were honest and realistic about the violence of this institution and this space,” the statement said. “We have and will continue to be more mindful about this space – in its history, meaning, and position – than the University of Virginia has ever been. ”

It is “particularly malicious” that the University is “enforcing unprecedented policies that limit free speech” even as it celebrates record-breaking numbers of more diverse students admitted to the Lawn. Sixty percent of the students selected for the prestigious Lawn residency next year are “people of color” — significantly more than the 40% representation of “people of color” in the undergraduate student body.

Bacon’s bottom line: The idea that people of color are being afflicted on the basis of their race/ethnicity is absurd. The sign restrictions apply to all Lawn residents equally, and they do nothing to restrict the rights of residents to express themselves in other venues.

Let’s be plain about what’s going on: The Lawn residents unhappy with the new standards aren’t fighting for “equal rights” for people of color. They’re fighting for privileges not accorded to others.

Even as campus Leftists demand exemptions on the grounds of race for standards of civility, they call for increasingly stringent restrictions on speech — such as a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policing of faculty — for expressions they find offensive. They demand the right to define what constitutes offensive speech, to change the standards whenever they want, to apply their new standards after the fact, and to apply severe sanctions. They insist upon being treated with respect but give none in return.

Campus radicals have weaponized race to bludgeon and intimidate university leaders, faculty and other students. The only reason the Ryan administration acted on the Lawn-signage issue is that outraged alumni raised a stink, lobbied the Board of Visitors, canceled tens of millions of dollars in promised donations and bequests, and organized themselves as a countervailing force in university power struggles. The controversy over Lawn signage is symbolic of far deeper issues. The battle for the soul of UVa is now underway. 

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