The Collegian
Friday, February 23, 2024

OPINION: Richmond, let’s talk about free expression

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

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

A dark cloud looms over the University of Richmond. Conformity, circumspection and platitudes dominate social life on campus, to the point where we fail to truly engage as a community. 

We need an honest conversation about the meaning of free expression, and how it should apply to our education. All voices stand to benefit from clear and common values of free expression. 

Richmond College Student Government Association, in collaboration with Westhampton College Government Association, has sought to address the difficult question of free expression on this campus. Members of both bodies have worked to pursue a statement that would define Richmond’s values regarding free expression. 

A statement alone does not correct vague policy or a culture that implicitly encourages aversion as opposed to debate. But explicit values of free expression should speak directly to the hearts and minds of every intellectual, activist, leader and citizen on this campus. We must do better. 

It is hard to define the exact source of the expression problem because it is all around us. No, there are not any known abuses of constitutionally-protected speech at Richmond. Speakers have come and gone, while activists have organized and protested in ways that have upheld decorum, academic freedom and free speech. 

And yet, a student can spend four years here and never engage with the most difficult issues of our time in a meaningful way. How can a student be prepared for life after graduation without coming to terms with issues of race, class, gender and religion? Why are so many students afraid to participate in these controversial discussions? How can we come together as a university to end the apathy and truly engage with one another? 

Some on the far right have been advancing an insidious agenda to legitimize public discrimination. In their twisted view, free expression means the ability to relentlessly insult minorities, deny established facts, deliberately cause social upheaval and incite violence. 

Christopher Newport University’s president, Paul Trible, was correct when he wrote that as a community, a university should “denounce and reject the violence and vile and vicious voices of those who spew hatred.” 

Those voices are contradictory to the principles of thoughtful dialogue and respect for human dignity, which free expression seeks to protect. Through our movement to consider a statement on free expression, we seek to support forthright and meaningful dialogue on a campus we find to be too complacent.

Our university has embarked upon a series of initiatives designed to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. These are noble ideals, and we should consider how a culture of inquiry and expression might support them. 

As students, we must actively seek to understand people who are different from us. We have all had meaningful lives that have shaped our worldviews, and we would do well to share those with our peers. If the exchange of perspectives can be done openly and respectfully, fostered by an intentionally developed culture of free inquiry, then we will have achieved a remarkable outcome. The mission of social justice will remain unfinished as long as people fail to understand one another. True understanding can only be accomplished through open, respectful expression. 

Richmond deserves free expression. Our community has the tendency to exercise politeness to the point of superficiality, and robust debates on the tough topics of our time are rare. The culture of busyness leaves us vulnerable to apathy regarding some of the deepest questions as we move through our daily lives. 

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We need a culture of activism that gives life to conversation. Students deserve to encounter ideas contrary to their own, so we may graduate more resilient, worldlier and better prepared to be citizens. 

We are faced with a challenge: fostering robust academic inquiry while simultaneously cultivating an environment that is intentionally welcoming to students who come from historically marginalized backgrounds. As a professor once told me, grappling with discomfort is a part of college life, but acceptance of hatred in pursuit of a hidden political agenda is not. 

Make no mistake. Richmond must take a stance, but the publication of free expression values is only the first step. The path to identify those values should spark deep conversations in spirit of open inquiry across campus. Hopefully, this spirit will become a cornerstone of life at Richmond. 

Christopher Newport University has demonstrated that we need not have a war between inclusivity and free expression, and there is no self-evident divide between social justice and truth. These principles should interact harmoniously to produce the ideal community. 

It’s time we wake up and address free expression and inquiry on our campus. In addition to CNU, Colgate University’s "Commitment to Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom" and Wake Forest University’s “A Call to Conversation” are also excellent places to start. 

These universities have already set the bar, but we can raise it to new heights.

Tyler York is the president of the Richmond College Student Government Association. Contact him at 

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