You Support Free Speech? Show It.

We support free speech… unless it’s hate speech… and hate speech is anything that offends us.

by James A. Bacon

The leaders of Virginia’s colleges and universities are sensitive to the public’s distrust of higher-ed’s ability to protect freedom of speech and “cultivate robust and divergent viewpoints.”

“Today’s students may hesitate to discuss difficult topics for fear of retribution or ostracism,” write four Virginia higher-ed presidents in an op-ed published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Yet free expression and academic freedom are essential to the tripartite mission of learning, discovery and engagement.”

To address these fears the Virginia Council of Presidents has issued a statement expressing support for free expression:

As presidents of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, we unequivocally support free expression and viewpoint diversity on our campuses. Free expression is the fundamental basis for both academic freedom and for effective teaching and learning inside and outside the classroom. Our member universities and colleges are bound to uphold the First Amendment. We are committed to promoting this constitutional freedom through robust statements and policies that are formulated through shared governance processes and through actions that reflect and reinforce this core foundation of education. We value a scholarly environment that is supported by a diversity of research and intellectual perspectives among our faculty and staff. We pledge to promote and uphold inclusivity, academic freedom, free expression, and an environment that promotes civil discourse across differences. We will protect these principles when others seek to restrict them.

Noble words. But I won’t believe the presidents’ commitment to “free speech and viewpoint diversity” until I see massive changes in the way they run their institutions.

The fact that the college presidents felt moved to voice their commitment to free speech, civil discourse, and intellectual diversity is a positive step, not the least in that it acknowledges the existence of a problem that many have contended is a figment of conservatives’ imagination. Here’s the rub: faculty and staff of Virginia’s universities are lopsidedly left-of-center and they are getting less intellectually diverse, not more. The pressure to conform to leftist pieties is intensifying, not easing.

The prime driver is the universities’ commitment to a left-wing or “woke” paradigm for social justice that views society through the lens of racial, gender, and sexual oppression. To institutionalize this paradigm, almost every public university in the state has erected Diversity, Equity & Inclusion bureaucracies, and many require employees and job applicants to submit “diversity statements” outlining their commitment to social-justice goals.

The Baby Boomer generation of scholars is more leftist in orientation than the generation that preceded it, but Boomers are marked by a modicum of diversity in intellectual viewpoints. They are being replaced by a younger generation that is far more uniformly leftist. Ideological filters such as DEI statements weed out scholars not committed to a “woke” position on the greatest social controversies of our day. The evolution toward an intellectual monoculture has enormous momentum. Few conservatives are willing to undergo years of graduate-student poverty knowing how dim their academic employment prospects will be. The pipeline of diversity of thought is being shut down at the source.

I’m inclined to view the Council of Presidents’ statement as political posturing while a Republican occupies the Governor’s Mansion and Republicans in the House of Delegates control the public purse strings. I’ll believe the presidents are genuinely committed to free speech and intellectual diversity when they scrap their diversity statements, rein in their DEI bureaucracies, and stop punishing students and professors for violating the woke orthodoxy.

It is ironic that Timothy Sands affixed his signature to the op-ed, even as Virginia Tech soccer player Kiersten Hening continues to pursue a lawsuit against a coach who benched her two years ago for refusing to kneel to show support for Black Lives Matter. Demonstrating solidarity with Black Lives Matter may not be official Virginia Tech policy, but Sands has fostered a campus culture where Hening’s experience is hardly unique.

The assault on free expression runs deep. University presidents need to rein in their EEOC offices, bureaucracies that enforce left-wing speech standards under the guise of combating “discrimination.” They need to scrutinize the many other ways, often arcane, in which mid-level administrators and student institutions of self-governance suppress heretical views.

Article 35 of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China promises the right to freedom of speech. We know how well that works. In the absence of concrete action to change campus cultures, abstract expressions in support of free speech and intellectual diversity in America don’t mean much more.

This column is republished with permission from Bacon’s Rebellion.

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Practicing Lawyer
Practicing Lawyer
1 month ago

Well said, Jim. Merry Christmas. The DEI statements required for hiring, review, and promotion are political loyalty statements that have no legitimate place in academics. Like the COVID mandate, bureaucrats use them to cull bad-thinkers from our institutions. They should be intolerable to any institution with liberal ideals, like the free exchange of ideas. I see no reason why they cannot be outlawed by the end of this Youngkin term. Someone let me know if I overstate the pernicious effect of these statements or the ease with which they can be excised if the board addresses it.

joseph a miller BA '70
joseph a miller BA '70
1 month ago

Virtue signaling at its best- walk the walk don’t talk! Another practicing lawyer

Jon Finger
Jon Finger
1 month ago

It is an important step in the right direction. Previously, we had the statement supporting free speech and expression and diversity of opinion only supported by a policy adopted by the BOV. That meant nothing without the support of the President (and therefore presumably the administration), the faculty (still lacking), and major student organizations (still lacking). At least now we have 4 University presidents supporting this concept. I believe any individual university president was likely afraid to “come out” alone in support of freedom of speech and expression – probably against the wises of woke faculty and staffers. Hopefully, this starts to put some pressure on faculty to understand their role in the education process, and perhaps our provosts will also start to emphasize freedom of thought and intellectual diversity in their hiring and promotion decisions. So, hats off to these presidents for this important first step.

Geoffrey Close
Geoffrey Close
1 month ago

What about the quote attributed to Voltaire, “I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it!”

GRob
GRob
1 month ago

Well said. Talk is cheap.
From Professor John Ellis:
“The [college and university] hiring being done now is at the rate of about 50 to one [Leftist], not five to one or eight to one. So you’re going to wind up with a complete monoculture.”
From Larry Arnn at Hillsdale College:
“The fact is that since the 1960s, the Left has increasingly controlled the tools of education, and it has used those tools to undermine informed patriotism, with the ultimate goal of transforming American government and society.”
Why are elite academics doing this? Historically it has been the elite academics who think they can manage a society because they are so smart. Their path is socialism.
If we don’t stop the seed of this problem in our colleges and universities, we will lose our country.

The Bootstrap Kid.
The Bootstrap Kid.
1 month ago

Well written. You summed it up beautifully. Although I graduated from The UVA law school several decades ago and I still practice law, I only donate money to Hillsdale College.

60's Alumnus
60's Alumnus
1 month ago

Along with well intentioned words how about an amendment to a Student Code of Conduct that provides for immediate suspension of any student who willfully attempts to cancel, shout down, distract, or otherwise interfere with a speaker’s
free expression. Such a student is interfering with the rights of paying students and should b excised without discussion.

Dorian
Dorian
1 month ago

I never would have imagined back when I was in high school and even college, as a 41 year old American that DEI statements would be a thing in a free country. It is mind boggling, it basically amounts to a modern version of a statement of faith. Requiring faculty to sign DEI statements should be treated as an assault on freedom of faith, and thought, which is exactly what it is since of course it is THEIR version of DEI.

We should have all seen the trend coming though, since for many years, the far left has been infiltrating every sector of our government, and their push for censorship started out gradually, first by simply trying to make us feel bad if you are white, or male, or Christian, or whatever other group they decide is “non grata”.

I am a professor and thankfully, my college does not require a DEI signature, but if they ever did, I will stay true to my principles and resign. They can keep their salary, and my freedom is much more important to me than some DEI lie.

I graduated from an “Ivy League”, and the other day they were interviewing students about free speech on campus. It was so sad to see how scared and uncomfortable they looked voicing “different” opinions. This should NEVER have happened in a free society, in a free country that we used to be. Younger people are all really scared of saying the “wrong” thing. I notice it even in my younger sister constantly shushing her young daughters if they say something “un-PC”. It’s ridiculous and stupid, but at the same time I get it since now there are real serious professional consequences for having the “wrong” thoughts.

This is happening everywhere, unfortunately. The other day I had the privilege of visiting Jefferson’s Monticello, but the tour guide was very far left. It’s sad what they are doing to our once free country.

The good news is that the “woke” institutions are already imploding. My suggestions? Alumni need to really STOP giving money. Hit them where it hurts the most: their bottom line.

Also, employers will soon have to administer their own tests since merit has been thrown out, as well as standardized testing. Why would anyone want to pay for an overpriced tarnished product that is about equality of result, which means elevating the dumbest and most unqualified, above true intelligence and academic merit? Like all failed experiments that impose artificial human equality, this will fail as miserably as Cuba or the former USSR.

Jack Kennard
Jack Kennard
1 month ago

“I have completed Bias 101 and Safe Zone training, and proudly display an equity sign on my laptop” …An excerpt from a “model” DEI statement. Coercion takes several forms. Here is coercion by compellance. Faculty undergo forced indoctrination and are compelled to display an outward and visible sign of conviction to DEI on one’s personal property. “Compelled?”, you may ask. Of course it is unless one is indifferent to isolation from the group that is woke beyond repair.

walter smith
walter smith
1 month ago

Empty words.
Why won’t the “unequivocal” UVA release the third party comments to the “free speech” committee to me?
Why not the charge of Jim Ryan to the committee?
Because UVA doesn’t really believe in free speech, except to assuage the alumni and keep the money flowing.
Why was there no resistance to masks and mandates? Think about it – NOT ONE professor disagreed? Is that even statistically possible, even considering a 95% Dem skew? So, why would anyone be silent? Because the prof who complained would end his career with the “tolerant” crowd. And that is why they are silent over the compelled DEI loyalty oaths. Academic freedom and 1st Amendment be damned.
Blame us citizens for being asleep at the switch for too long. Blame the BOV for doing nothing about it.

Wahoo'74
Wahoo'74
1 month ago

Spot on, Jim. Well said.

Martin Anthony Senell
Martin Anthony Senell
1 month ago

I too have stopped giving to the UVA I used to love. And I will never give any more until there is visible evidence of change from the woke culture. And until the Architecture School hires a registered architect as its dean instead of someone who holds a degree in Social Justice. Watch out Law and Med Schools.