Promoting freedom of expression at the University of Richmond is now at the top of the list of priorities for the current university leadership. Since as early as 2017, University President Ronald A. Crutcher has promoted a personal campaign on the issue.
In 2018, Crutcher penned an essay in The Hechinger Report titled “Defending the ‘right to be here’ on campus,” arguing that conservative voices are stifled on college campuses. And, he wrote an essay on the importance of free speech for inclusive learning communities: “free expression and inclusivity are core values of the 21st century academy. … We must continue to invite speakers who will spawn debate and celebrate institutions that take risks and bravely defend the rights of all to speak freely.”
Thereafter, the university supported Crutcher's views by paying big bucks to a series of white cisgender heterosexual men to speak about free expression on campus: Jeffrey Herbst, Jonathan Haidt, Robert Zimmer, Fred Lawrence and Alexander Heffner. Aside from the relatively low diversity among the campus’ high-profile speakers, it’s noteworthy that several of these aforementioned men are politically conservative or libertarian.
During his State of the University address last month, Crutcher promised that “[t]his year we will continue to advance a thriving and inclusive community through freedom of expression." Then, he formally announced the creation of a university task force on freedom of expression, which he charged with developing a statement on free expression that will “welcome a range of viewpoints.”
Crutcher stated that “at the University of Richmond we never disinvite speakers, unless we learn a speaker has incited violence in the past." It takes UR one step closer to adopting what is known as the Chicago Principles – controversial university policies fashioned by the University of Chicago that have been criticized for 1) barring the use of trigger warnings, 2) condemning any attempts to block an invited speaker's speech (no matter how offensive or inaccurate) and 3) banning the creation of campus safe spaces.
Despite widespread criticism, the Chicago Principles have been adopted by 68 other colleges in the U.S. President Trump gave even more power to these efforts by signing a sweeping executive order to penalize universities that receive federal funding if they fail to “foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate.”
Beyond higher education, the right wing has weaponized free speech to bar policies and programs that promote diversity and inclusivity. Last month, Arizona’s state Supreme Court granted wedding invitation makers the right to deny service to same-sex couples in order to protect their Christian belief that marriage should be limited to one woman and one man. At the national level, free speech cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court have increasingly shifted toward those concerning conservative speech, in most cases deciding in favor of conservatives.
Why, then, is UR leadership pushing to create a University of Chicago-like freedom of expression policy? Why would the university actively push to support a right-wing agenda to infiltrate the seemingly liberal system of higher education? One that targets professors whose work and perspectives challenge the status quo?
There is limited evidence of a free speech crisis in higher education. In the Knight Foundation poll that Crutcher often cites as evidence of a (conservative) speech crisis, most college students actually favor policies to ban hate speech. And, if forced to choose between inclusion and free speech, over half of students said they favored promoting the former at the expense of the latter.
Even UR students have argued that no such crisis exists on our campus, that UR already does a great job protecting speech and that the administration’s new efforts to further protect speech are excessive. Haidt, a former Sharp Viewpoint Speaker, even ranked UR among the top 10 universities “where you won’t have to walk on eggshells” in Reason, a libertarian magazine.
In the face of potential interruptions, the university hired plain-clothes campus police officers to attend last year’s Sharp Viewpoint Speakers Series events. And uniformed officers maintained tight security at last September’s annual bigotry-disguised-as-science talk by Ryan Anderson of The Heritage Foundation. These events show the lengths UR is willing to go to protect the speech of conservatives – in these cases, of those unaffiliated with the university.
I am not convinced that a new, lax freedom of expression policy is necessary – at least not if the primary goal is to further affirm conservative perspectives. Championing “viewpoint diversity,” which really means including more conservatives (who are overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, cisgender and wealthy), actually works against UR’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity.
Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Richmond and a Black queer non-binary scholar-activist. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.