The Asymmetrical Application of Free-Speech Principles

by James A. Bacon

Clifford S. Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, did a masterful job of distilling the free-speech debate on college campuses to its essence. Though he had in mind the disastrous testimony of the three Ivy League presidents last week regarding Palestinians and Jews, his Wall Street Journal op-ed describes the dilemma at the University of Virginia as well.

Alumni donors like me don’t object to free speech. What we can’t abide is the extremely asymmetrical application of free-speech principles. For years these schools, [the University of Pennsylvania] prominently included, have actively suppressed ideas disagreeable to the progressive worldview of their administrations, faculties and hard-core student activists. Now that those groups are talking about wiping Israel off the map, these college presidents are wrapping themselves in the First Amendment. …

Unacceptable is the current status quo of free speech for those chanting slogans that amount to “death to the Jews” but not for those committing alleged microaggressions against the politically favored.

That is precisely the problem I have with the UVa administration.

The day after Hamas terrorists slaughtered thousands of defenseless Israeli citizens and abducted hundreds more, the Students for Justice in Palestine at UVA were free to say the following (my bold):

Students for Justice in Palestine at UVa unequivocally supports Palestinian liberation and the right of colonized people everywhere to resist the occupation of their land by whatever means they deem necessary. … In an unprecedented feat for the 21st century, resistance fighters in Gaza broke through the illegitimate border fence, took occupation soldiers hostage, and seized control of several Israeli settlements. … We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance fighters and all oppressed people around the world seeking freedom.

In America, Palestinians and their leftist allies have the right to express heinous views — even justifying the massacre, beheading, and mass rape of civilians by invoking the tortured history of conflict between Palestinians and Jews over the past century. They have the right to march peacefully in support of those views. They have the right to organize “teach ins” that “teach” only one side, their side, of the story. No matter how utterly vile the rest of us find their opinions, no matter how offended by them we are, no matter the pain it causes us, they have the right to express them. And the Ryan administration is correct to respect their rights.

The problem is, in Asness’ brilliant phrase, the asymmetrical application of those principles. Since the Jefferson Council was formed in 2021, we have documented the following…

When attending a session on microaggressions, medical student Kieran Bhattacharya took issue in the Q&A session with the scholarly underpinnings of the concept. An offended member of the audience filed a professionalism concern card against him, triggering an administrative review of his behavior. That review became acrimonious and, when conflated with issues stemming from Bhattacharya’s mental health, ended with his expulsion from the Grounds and ultimately the medical school.

McIntire professor Jeffrey Leopold told a joke designed to illustrate the problem with stereotyping peoples and nationalities. The joke drew upon on stereotypes of Chinese, Russians, Americans, Europeans and… Africans. The punchline: “Africans didn’t know what food was.” Some students in the class were offended, their complaints went viral, and Leopold was forced into a groveling apology. He hung onto his job for two years, but this spring resigned from his post mid-semester with no explanation.

Morgan Bettinger was driving home from work when she was stopped by a downtown Black Lives Matter rally. She remarked to the driver of a city truck  that it was a good thing he was blocking the street or the protesters could become speed bumps. Some protesters overheard the comment, misinterpreted it, and denounced Bettinger for making it. Before long, she became the victim of a Twitter storm, was put under investigation by UVa authorities, and was sanctioned by the student judiciary. To graduate, she was compelled to apologize, perform social justice-related community service, and meet with a professor to discuss the history of police-community relations to “broaden her understanding.” After a formal UVa investigation found her innocent of wrongdoing, she appealed to have the mark on her record expunged. Citing the independence of the student judiciary, President Jim Ryan declined to get involved.

The stories are not outliers. We know of similar incidents, which we are not at liberty to disclose. The pattern is the same. If someone says something to agitate a favored identity group, a Twitter storm erupts, offenders are reported to the administration, investigations are held, jobs are put in jeopardy, and punishments are meted out. Thus, UVa has become a place where…

It’s OK to say: Terror attacks on Israel are a justifiable response to oppression.
It’s not OK to say: The scholarship behind microaggression theory is flawed.

It’s OK to advocate: Palestine will be free from the river to the sea — a call for the eradication of the Israeli state with all its attendant consequences.
It’s not OK to joke: Famine-plagued Africans don’t know what food is.

But there’s more to the asymmetry than formal administrative action. Jews at UVa have been subjected to insults and ethnic slurs that would not be tolerated if directed at a favored identity group. Those slurs go unreported and unpunished. Jewish students at UVa are hunkering down. Most keep a low profile to avoid confrontation. Most are afraid to speak out. The reluctance to speak openly for fear of ostracism or official retaliation extends to many non-Jews as well, but during the current turmoil caused by the Hamas-Israel war, Jewish fears are especially acute.

President Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom have repeatedly expressed their dedication to free speech principles…. in the abstract. But that’s not the problem. The problem is the application of those principles in real-world situations that are never exactly the same and require discretion on how to enforce them. The asymmetry is real, and it needs to end.

James A. Bacon is executive director of the Jefferson Council. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect an official Jefferson Council position.

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walter smith
walter smith
6 months ago


And there are more.

Meanwhile, the proclaimed “unequivocal” support for “free expression” and “free inquiry” is just talk – a fig leaf to shut up the alumni (framed as old white guys and racists) and MAGA extremists (also narrative framing).

There is “asymmetrical” disclosure by UVA.

If there was a real free speech atmosphere on Grounds, from 2019 through today, would you expect to “see” it exercised? Have there been any controversial issues?
Covid? Masking? Mandating shots? 2020 election? Treatment of Summer of Love Floyd riots vs J6 “insurrection?” Violation of religious liberty in denied Covid shot exemptions?

How is it even possible that there were no UVA professors standing up to express an opinion contrary to what unfolded? None? Why?

Res ipsa loquitur…

Geoffrey Close
Geoffrey Close
6 months ago

One problem is that one person’s terrorist is another person’s patriot and freedom fighter All we have to do is look t the atrocities done “in the name of the King” by the Tories during our own American Revolution. While I wholeheartedly am appalled by the atrocities to which innocent citizens were subjected to on October 6th, I am equally disturbed by the tactics of Hamas cowardly using innocents as human shields causing countless injuries and deaths to the very people they purportedly support and seek to “defend(?).” No institution should allow intimidation and threats of genocide. I wholeheartedly support the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania and would hope other institutions of “higher(?)” learning should follow their example. Yelling “FIRE” in a crowded movie theatre is nobody’s idea of “free” speech!

The Bootstrap Kid
The Bootstrap Kid
6 months ago

Giving money to UVA in 2023/2024 to support its students and faculty who advocate for the annihilation of Israel and its people would be similar to giving money to the Hitler Youth Camps in 1933/1934.

Richard Jacoby, M.D. Engr '64
Richard Jacoby, M.D. Engr '64
6 months ago

It seems that the retention of president Claudine Gay at Harvard is associated with a call for a review of rules and the codes of student conduct. That may be a difficult task. The problem is the contradiction of applying universal rules and codes while maintaining differences based on identity groups. An example of this contradiction was demonstrated by the answer to a question of one of the university presidents about the justification of reintroducing segregation to university activities (exclusive dining, dorms, graduations, safe spaces, etc.) The answer was: “it is OK because it is voluntary.” But “voluntary” and “exclusive” present a contradiction, as it is not voluntary for the excluded group. Implicit, then in this “voluntary” argument is that the rules and codes must be different depending on the identity group. The same contradiction, I think, applies to free speech and the “culture of intimidation” if rules and codes of conduct, rather than applied uniformly, are moderated to accommodate the assertion that only identity groups historically associated with oppressed can be intimidated, and objectional speech can only be uttered by the historical oppressor.  

Clarity can occur only with the unraveling of the labyrinth of ever-expanding favored groups and the changing terminology necessary to avoid ambiguities it creates, such that the now meaningless term “minority” is replaced by “historically underrepresented”. 

In addressing the issue of perceived speech calling for genocide against Jewish students, I think that, rather than unraveling the labyrinth of preferred groups, and adopting universal rules and codes of conduct, it will be more comfortable for the universities to maintain the paradigm and just move the Jewish students from the oppressor group back to the oppressed (at least temporarily).  Or is it a matter of “context”?  It is so confusing to be a university president.

In my era at The University, striving for membership in an exclusive group or club was an endemic pursuit.   Are today’s groups any less exclusive or virulent? 

walter smith
walter smith
6 months ago

Contradictory from beginning to end – like “inclusive excellence” – poison, and only makes things worse.

Mike Sullivan
Mike Sullivan
6 months ago

How do we open student minds to the richness of civil discourse? Is it of value to learn what Bucknell University has achieved through its seminar, Leadership: Theory, History and Practice, “This seminar is designed to: (1) integrate perspectives by introducing students to theories of leadership from several disciplines, (2) encourage global thinking by acquainting students with successful leadership models from different periods of history and from different cultures, (3) provide a forum for students to meet, challenge, and be challenged by successful leaders from different fields and from diverse backgrounds, (4) give opportunities for students to develop their analytical, organizational, evidence-based thinking, and speaking skills in situations requiring leadership.”
By recruiting the elected and other student leaders for such a seminar, would we be influencing/creating thought leaders that can potentially change the tone of discourse? Bucknell University, one of the members of Alumni Free Speech Alliance, appears to have some success. 
As Bucknell alumna Denise Chaykun Weaver, ODC’s interim chief operating officer, said, “We’re about allowing different views to be examined critically, and that’s what a university education in America today needs to be about. Disagreement is welcome, but we want to foster a community where it’s done civilly.”

Mike Sullivan '72 & '78
Mike Sullivan '72 & '78
6 months ago

An excellent SHORT clip w/ Ken Langone, Jay Clayton, & Andrew Ross Sorkin on the ‘Ivy Antisemitism debacle.’