The Collegian
Tuesday, June 25, 2024

OPINION: UR’s commitment to free speech deserves recognition

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

“The First Amendment is in serious trouble.”

These were the first words written by conservative columnist and speaker Ben Shapiro in a 2017 piece for National Review titled “College Students vs. Free Speech.” Shapiro, who routinely travels across the country to deliver lectures on college campuses, just as frequently is protested by college students and faculty members who disagree with his views. These disagreements have even turned violent at times.

Jeffrey Selingo, an editorial contributor who focuses on higher education for the Washington Post and The Atlantic, called some of these student-led marches against controversial speakers — including protests at the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary — “reminiscent of a war zone,” complete with armed police and students trying to shut down the speeches by any means necessary. Selingo wrote that one of Shapiro’s visits to the University of California at Berkeley resulted in over $600,000 spent in preparations and security. 

I want to commend the University of Richmond administration, its faculty members and its student body for creating a culture in which we realize that this sort of behavior is unacceptable, childish and a dire threat to academic conversation. Civil debate is a pillar of any successful university, and the tolerance of the vast majority of members of the campus community toward ideas different from their own speaks volumes.

I can think of only a few notable clashes of ideas from my three years so far at Richmond, none of which approached anything even resembling violence. 

One, from earlier this year, involved a group of students and faculty members who protested a conservative author’s speech at the T.C. Williams School of Law because of his views on gender by holding signs at his lecture while dressed in all white. While reading about the event, I was particularly touched by a comment from one of the protesters, a transgender student. He talked to the author after the speech and later gave this memorable quote to The Collegian: “It’s hard to hate someone when you meet them.”

This is who we are as Spiders. Our university’s motto, Verbum Vitae et Lumen Scientiae, translates as “Word of life and light of knowledge.” I can’t think of anything that better embodies those words than the image of a civil conversation between people with radically different experiences, each trying his or her best to understand and empathize with the other’s ideas.

I’ve never felt threatened or intimidated for voicing my conservative beliefs in the classroom or in The Collegian. I’ve never worried that I’ll hurt my grade by expressing an opinion different from my professors'. In fact, I’ve often felt the opposite was true. Professors and students at UR will go out of their way to hear an opposing view, because they realize it will make them better academics. 

Although the calls for more free speech come primarily from the right, likely because conservatives are frequently outnumbered on college campuses, I feel the same way toward students, student groups and faculty members on the left. I welcome events promoted by Planned Parenthood and other groups and ideologies I disagree with because I realize that more voices in the conversation will inform and enrich debate rather than dilute it. 

I’m proud to be a student at Richmond for several reasons. 

Our rankings in national publications for academic quality, financial aid and other measures continue to rise year after year. 

Nonetheless, no shiny number in a magazine or webpage could ever make up for a culture of intimidation and obedience in which students and faculty members toe the line for fear of being called out and shunned. What’s happening across the country at schools such as UC Berkeley, where violent mobs shout down and prevent dissenting opinions from being shared, should be seen not only as a blight on academia but as its antithesis. 

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I think I speak for many students and faculty members across the political spectrum when I say these two words to the university community as a whole:

Thank you.

Contact opinions writer Riley Blake at

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