Editor’s note: Alumnus Hunter Moyler was The Collegian’s opinions editor during his time at UR. Alec Greven is an opinions writer for The Collegian. The Collegian was not able to get in contact with English professor Bertram Ashe. The Collegian was not able to give him the opportunity to comment in time for this podcast’s publication. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast do not reflect those of The Collegian.
CONNER EVANS: Three years ago, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the tragic killing of Heather Heyer made it known that white supremacist groups were still alive and possibly even building momentum in the United States. Those Charlottesville demonstrations from neo-Nazi groups — and brave counterprotests — shook our country just down the road from University of Richmond, an hour’s drive away on I-64.
Those protests were also mere days before the start of UR’s fall semester in 2017. As UR prepared to bring returning students back to campus and welcome a whole new class of incoming students, the administration released a statement to the entire university community regarding the events in Charlottesville. Part of this message placed an emphasis on free speech as an integral part of a rich academic experience.
While the relationship between free expression and the role of higher education has been a conversation in many academic circles in recent years, UR's discussion is especially relevant: Since the Charlottesville protests, our campus has faced several incidents of discriminatory attitudes and racist acts, most of them taking form in the written word. Meanwhile, a committee of students and faculty have spent the past three years working on a free speech policy that was released in May 2020, in its current form.
Though the original call to action may have come from neighboring Charlottesville, the administration's initial reaction has evolved into a much broader and more complicated discussion about free speech, marginalized populations, inclusivity and the role of education in all of this.
I’m Conner Evans and this is Beneath the Surface, a Collegian Podcast.
EVANS: Following Charlottesville, UR president Ronald Crutcher, and the administration, denounced displays of hate, racism and white supremacy but also emphasized the need for free speech and expression. As we’ll show in this episode, some students didn’t believe the administration came down harshly enough against those Charlottesville protests and that Crutcher’s emphasis on free speech didn’t quite fit the moment. And some find that free speech has at times been weaponized against marginalized people.
The action from UR essentially started with Crutcher’s email to students, faculty and staff on Aug. 13, the Monday following the protests in Charlottesville.
He wrote, “We write to express our deepest sympathy to our neighbors in Charlottesville, including our colleagues at the University of Virginia, over the loss of life and injuries that resulted from senseless acts of violence and bigotry this weekend, and a related helicopter accident.
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“We offer our condolences to all those who were affected.”
It continued: “At Richmond, we respect and value our First Amendment rights that encourage us to speak freely and assemble in peace. We know that vigorous disagreement and the contest of ideas are central to a higher education and enlightenment. Our campus offers an ideal environment to learn from people of different backgrounds and perspectives and to confront bias through education and dialogue. We understand that civility must not be code for quieting others’ opinions, but a call for an energetic and respectful exchange of ideas within our richly varied academic communities.”
He went on to say that hatred has no place among an educated citizenry, and he promoted the upcoming Sharp speaker series where Crutcher would invite people across the political spectrum to talk on campus, a series he has maintained since 2017.
He also mentioned the importance of the Race and Racism Project, an archival project that uses mostly student researchers to uncover the more unseemly parts of UR’s history.
But action didn’t end with Crutcher’s statement, from the administration or from students.
The major school-sponsored event dealing specifically with Charlottesville and race was a panel on Aug. 31 put on by the UR College Democrats. Or at least, they organized the panel initially with support from the College Republicans, Black Student Alliance and the Multicultural Student Solidarity Network.
The College Democrats invited several panelists from UR faculty. They are: professor of sociology Bedelia Richards; professor of leadership studies Thad Williamson; former UR president and professor Edward Ayers; and Lucia Reinaga, former professor in the Latin American, Latino and Iberian studies department. They were to speak and respond to student questions in the Ukrop Auditorium, where there would be plenty of seats and, they hoped, plenty of students.
Hunter Moyler helped organize the event as the VP of the College Democrats at the time. He also used to be the opinions editor at The Collegian. Here’s what he remembers about deciding to organize that event.
HUNTER MOYLER: Eventually we came to the conclusion, “Okay, we're going to do sort of, like, uh ... an event where people can, like, talk about things with, you know, experts who might know something about the history of race in America, you know, what this might mean for, you know, American political climate and all that.”
EVANS: But, once the administration learned about the event, they wanted to help too. Crutcher would moderate the event, and they helped advertise. But, students would not end up being allowed to ask questions freely, once the administration got involved.
MOYLER: So, you know, the school wouldn't get any questions they deemed necessarily inappropriate … stuff like that. So we kind of, we kind of fought them on that. We kind of were like, “That's not … it's not real, it's kind of against the whole point.” That it's kind of, you know, pre-prepared the questions. We want the audience to be able to ask these questions because, you know, they're the ones who should have been thinking and, you know, having their, uh, presuppositions challenged throughout the panel, right?
EVANS: It turned out that no student questions were taken during the panel. Moyler said that UR administration officials had agreed to taking written submissions that would be screened during the event, but, because of a miscommunication shortly before the event was set to start, they didn’t receive any questions. Moyler himself actually had to frantically write down questions and give them to Crutcher during the event as he realized what had happened.
So, it wasn’t exactly as the College Democrats had planned, but they still had a strong set of panelists, and the event wasn’t without tension despite the lack of audience participation.
Bedelia Richards said at one point “protecting free speech is emboldening white supremacy.”
Crutcher responded: "If you don’t agree with someone, you don’t have to sit there and remain silent. You can say, ‘I don’t agree with you,’ and you can do it in a respectful, thoughtful way. The university is a great place for people to learn those skills.”
EVANS: That fall in 2017, Crutcher followed up his email’s promise. He invited several speakers as part of the Sharp speaker series from across the political spectrum for a structured discussion event, with tickets available to students, faculty and members of the local community. At these events, Crutcher would moderate the discussion with the guest speaker, ask some prepared questions, sometimes some vetted audience questions and audience members could come to learn and talk with speakers after their time on stage. But, like the Charlottesville panel, some students felt that these events didn't give them much opportunity to challenge speakers’ ideas.
Kay Dervishi, a reporter at The Forum magazine at the time, went to the Charlottesville panel and a couple of different Sharp speaker events. She wrote an opinion piece in 2018 for The Collegian in which she criticized the administration’s hypocritical stance on free speech.
She was writing specifically about the March 2018 Sharp Speakers event, when UR invited former Bush administration Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove along with undocumented immigrant and Pulitzer Prize award-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. Students heard opposing viewpoints on immigration, sure, she said, but speakers weren’t really challenged on the stage in a way that would reflect the rigorous debate and free speech that Crutcher had touted.
In 2017 that same fall, Crutcher also moderated an event with the two leading [Virginia] gubernatorial candidates, Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie, but they never shared the stage, Dervishi said.
DERVISHI: And I thought on its face that was kind of absurd, given that UR has traditionally been a very not politically active campus. As far as, like, you will never see a protest like what would happen at Berkeley at the University of Richmond. It just -- it's a smaller school and there's just not that same activist energy, um, on such a larger scale. Like, there’s certainly people who are very politically active, um, and, you know, push a lot on things, but I would definitely say it is not the majority, uh -- situations. It's very easy for UR to avoid these situations.
And I also think, you know, even comparing some of the, uh, figures that have faced a lot of these protests -- the ones that were invited, which broadly have been more academic standing is a bit strange as well.
I also have some quibbling about, just, how the university administration generally does on transparency. But, um, yeah, I mean, like the Sharp speaker series the first year it was out they did not take so many questions, for example. Um, so yes, it's very easy to avoid controversy when only person who's asking questions on stage is, you know, Crutcher can ask really softball things.
EVANS: But in a July 2018 op-ed in the Hechinger Report, Crutcher lauded how UR handled the same panel, saying that it was quite peaceful with a robust security detail in place.
He wrote: “In fact, during the question-and-answer period, we asked Rove what advice he would give Vargas and other undocumented Americans who seemingly have no pathway to legal citizenship. Rove gave a heartfelt (and likely surprising to some) answer, suggesting immediate bipartisan action and compromise through a five-part plan that included DACA concessions, a border wall in some form, and a legal — yet fair — pathway for those who contribute to the nation’s economy and are educated and law-abiding.”
Crutcher continued: “We need to use these moments to teach — about First Amendment protections, the difference between hate speech and offensive speech, and the characteristics of legal and civil demonstrations. When we welcome speakers espousing all viewpoints into our classrooms and lecture halls, we must fearlessly defend their right to be here. Usher them through the front door, so to speak, and celebrate the debate while holding everyone accountable for their actions.”
EVANS: Now, the free speech policy could affect The Collegian too, and as an editor’s note, the views and opinions expressed in this podcast do not reflect those of The Collegian as a whole.
Free speech is about more than just academics and who is invited to campus, though, as Dervishi points out.
DERVISHI: I also just think there is a good deal of hypocrisy in the fixation on free speech from Crutcher’s part, um, given that the university itself, um, when it comes to issues about the university, is not forthright and transparent at all. Like, you know, even just like putting aside say, like, political issues or other current events and whatnot, um, I mean, like … I'm sure you guys are familiar with this, but, I mean, it's pretty apparent that a lot of times the administration’s just not comfortable with student press or activists, um, you know, asking questions and everything and being transparent when, when the, sort of, attention’s pointed at them.
EVANS: So, at least in those years, free speech was encouraged, but only to a certain point. And national context is important here too. This is when schools had mass demonstrations against alt-right speakers, for example like Milo Yiannopoulos. UR may have been afraid of similar protests, even though their student population had never quite shown that same political zeal.
This wasn’t UC Berkeley, especially not then.
UR’s move to detail its own free speech policy was more proactive than reactive when it came to what was taking place on its own campus.
EVANS: Alec Greven is one of the chief architects of the recently published Recommended Statement on Free Expression. He’s been working on this policy since the first semester of his freshman year, the fall of 2017.
Greven, now a senior, focused mainly on the academic aspect of free speech, emphasizing how students will have to encounter ideas they strongly stand against outside of college. I’ll also note here that Greven is currently an opinions writer for The Collegian.
ALEC GREVEN: The broader argument that free speech and inclusivity are not opposed to each other. And that’s one of the largest pushbacks, is that -- and I’ve heard it from faculty and students alike -- is that with speech comes power, and with that power you have the ability to harm others. Which, I agree. Speech can be very, like, harmful.
The question is: Is censorship and policies that limit free expression -- are those actually useful? And the problem is, in a lot of senses, like, students will be entering the real world where there are broad speech protections. And if we consider the university to be kind of the incubator of democratic society and democratic society has free speech. Then, that also means that the university has to have free speech.
EVANS: I mentioned Milo earlier, and while neither UR’s administration nor its students have invited anyone that controversial or objectionable, some students did protest a speaker invited to campus in September of 2018. Ryan Anderson, author of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, which criticizes trans ideology, was invited by a law student group called the Federalist Society.
Student protesters saw Anderson as propagating transphobic viewpoints, and several students stood holding signs with pictures of trans people who were killed or died by suicide because of transphobia. And yet, both protesters and other students who were at the event said that it was quite civil, according to a Collegian article covering the event at the time.
So, how does the free speech policy address on campus speakers?
GREVEN: There was a call by, like, some faculty and students that Ryan should be -- should be disinvited and should not be allowed to come to campus. I disagree with that approach because students are going to be confronted with those that hold, like, Ryan Anderson’s views. So it's much better to hear his view, like, in a presentation, like, fleshed out and then, like, robustly challenge and get more information on the table, um, and really kind of have, like, an overall topic. And so president Crutcher, um, sent a statement that Ryan Anderson would not be disinvited, which I agree with, but then also, like, what I've heard with is a lot of students that shared, um -- like a protest. And so they didn't -- in this protest, it was peaceful. They didn't shout down Ryan Anderson’s speech; they wore white in solidarity with transgender students. --
EVANS: Right, brought signs, I think.
GREVEN: -- This is all speech. If Ryan Anderson never came to campus, you wouldn’t see those, um, that speech that, like, affirms transgender students, that supports them. All that, kind of, just would not happen. And so I think -- and then they also had a speaker come up and rebutted a lot of Ryan Anderson’s points and challenged that. And so ultimately I think, like, it fulfilled the mission of the university because we got a lot of dialogue out on the table and really kind of used speech as a force for good, rather than censoring, um, censoring Ryan Anderson and not allowing that speech to come to campus.
EVANS: The Recommended Statement on Free Expression, released in December 2019, that Greven worked on is in line with what he just discussed, and so is the updated version that came out in May.
It states, “At the University of Richmond, speech may not be suppressed, nor speakers disinvited, simply because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even most members of the university community to be unwelcome, untrue, immoral or deeply offensive.”
Greven noticed in creating this policy that, because UR is a private university, if it wanted to, it could ban public protest altogether. And currently on the books is a policy that requires students to notify Events Conferences and Support Services 48 hours in advance about a public demonstration or peaceful protest. Greven said this was limiting to the free speech that he supports because protests are often spontaneous events and energy can wane after a 48-hour window.
GREVEN: It's incumbent on us to come in and ultimately, like, counter that speech with more speech to engage in a dialogue that can hopefully, like, change that student's mind, that can make it less adversarial in the classroom. And so the responsibility of a professor in that kind of case -- and also probably students as well -- is to push back against ideas that they disagree with and make sure that there is, like, many ideas out there.
Because the other worry is that we run into, kind of, a dogma where everyone, like, agrees or people are afraid to share certain views in the classroom. And there’s also, um, there’s been studies of students that have self-censored in class.
And that’s just concerning, because if people don’t share their ideas you have a worry that people that have, kind of, bad ideas in their brain -- if they’re not sharing them, if they’re not confronted with them, engaging in a dialogue, then they’re not going to change.
They’re going to carry those ideas out, um, with them as they graduate. Or they’ll have this, like, enhanced, like, sense of resentment --. The point is, we need a lot of speech out there in order to productively deal with contentious issues.
EVANS: Greven has worked with Crutcher closely, through a mentorship program and this free speech policy. And he praised how he has advocated for both free speech and inclusivity throughout his tenure. And Greven said Crutcher's view of free expression is crucial to achieve another important value of the university.
GREVEN: He's pushed for support for free expression, but he's also pushed, um, support for inclusive excellence. And he's really helped to clarify that, like, inclusive excellence needs free expression, and that they are mutually supporting rather than, like, something that needs to be opposed, and that you can’t be, like, you can only have one and not the other.
And so I really appreciate, like, how he’s, like, made strides to, um -- so that free expression supports, like, diversity and inclusive efforts.
EVANS: Through the Sharp speaker series and UR’s Recommended Statement on Free Expression, the administration and president Crutcher have certainly been consistent about how they see free expression as not hindering marginalized groups on campus, but rather as an important part of a rich academic experience.
But there has been dissent from some faculty members too, regarding the free speech policy.
EVANS: One vocal critic of the administration’s free speech policy over the last three years has been Eric Anthony Grollman, an associate professor in the sociology department. Grollman has also been critical at times of how Crutcher and the rest of the administration has responded to racist events on campus.
In December 2018, a Snapchat video, geotagged for the University of Richmond, showed a gingerbread house decorated with swastikas being thrown out of a window. The event was investigated by UR police, and chief David McCoy said at the time that the two students who made the gingerbread house apologized and expressed their dislike for the Nazi symbols.
Joshua Jeffreys, Jewish chaplain and director of religious life, emailed members of the UR Jewish community about the incident, writing: “We know that those involved in this incident intended this video as a prank, and that they have offered a contrite apology regarding their misguided antics.”
Later, he wrote: “We now understand that this was not a joke, and rather a manifestation of the students involved expressing their dislike of the antisemitisim, bigotry and hatred for the swastika and what it represents to so many with the intent of destroying the object.”
But Grollman criticized the idea that the video was anti-racist, saying to The Collegian at the time, “It read as people partying, not protesting.”
“There are their intentions, and then there’s the impact. I feel like we’re digging deeper into, ‘Well, what did they mean by it, what were they thinking, what was their state of mind’ and so forth, and no one’s asking, ‘What is the impact?’”
Grollman has also written multiple op-eds in The Collegian critiquing the free expression policy and its purpose on a campus like UR’s. Grollman said of the policy, “In whatever form it takes once formally adopted, [it] will be hollow if the university fails to actively work to ensure marginalized students, staff and faculty feel empowered to speak in public spaces.”
And they aren’t the only member of UR’s faculty who has been critical.
Law professor Hank Chambers wrote about curating campus speakers in the University of Richmond Law Review in July of last year. The issue of campus speakers remains one of the issues that this policy addresses most directly, but Chambers said he was concerned with other aspects of free expression on campus as well.
CHAMBERS: What the -- what the statement feels like to me is a statement that’s really about campus speakers and not really about free expression, you know?
I mean -- so ask yourself this question. We're coming back in the fall. Let's say that a housekeeping worker is really upset about some of the things that we're doing for COVID-19, or some of the things we may not be doing with COVID-19. Do we think that that housekeeper will, will be treated very well, if, if they engage in, let's say, some real hardcore free expression?
I'm not so sure about that [laughs]. I don't, I don't know how, you know, whether we’d say: “That's awesome. That's free expression at its best.” Or whether we would say, “Well, hold on a second. You're an employee, and employees act in a certain way.”
You know, I mean, so that’s -- and maybe, and maybe, I’m wrong about that. Maybe, maybe there are a lot of folks who are non-tenured people around the university who are just making their thoughts known to anybody and everybody. I don't get that sense that that's how we roll at Richmond.
But people could think about the free expression notion and ask, “Do we mean free expression only when we're talking about academics? Or do we really mean complete free expression around the university, in a way that folks will not pay the price if they engage in some real hardcore free expression?”
EVANS: So, maybe we should think critically about what free speech really means, particularly on a private university campus. And Chambers spoke specifically about the idea of “more speech is better” and how it might affect marginalized people using a sports analogy.
CHAMBERS: So let me give you an example, or an analogy. Let's say that, that I have, um, 10 tennis balls. And, and we're playing a game where we're throwing tennis -- well, let's say we're playing dodgeball. Right. So I've got 10 balls, and I get to throw them. And you know, we see what happens.
Well, if every one of my tennis balls that I throw is from a defensive posture, I'm never going to win. Right? Meanwhile, you know, other folks get to throw offensive and -- meanwhile I'm just here trying to defend what, what small piece of turf I have.
And it's kind of hard for, particularly at an institution like U of R … if you're in, if you're in the minority -- and I don’t just mean race minority, but I mean, wherever minority groups you're talking about -- if you're in the minority, and you're told, “Hey, whenever a speaker comes, you've got to mobilize to defend your right to exist.” Right? Or, “You’ve got to mobilize to defend your view about the world.”
Then that's -- one, it's very tiring, one. And number two, it's not clear that that's what the University of Richmond really wants, when it also talks about inclusion. Ah, because one of the things about inclusion is that the point to inclusion is, people come to campus and they feel as comfortable as everybody else. And if I'm defending who I am, what I look like, how I act -- if that's what I'm doing when I'm on campus then it's hard to argue that we're really about inclusion.
And to hear someone say, “Well, you just have to get into the rough and tumble of the world.” Like, okay, I'm not saying that people should be protected from the rough and tumble of the world. But man, I'm supposed to be at home. Right? When I get home, I'm not supposed to necessarily -- I can be challenged on some things. But man, do I have to be challenged on things all the time that are core to who I am? That’s -- that’s tough.
And maybe the answer’s yes. But gosh, if the answer’s yes, I sure wish we could do some challenging of everybody and not quite so much challenging of folks who are underrepresented and folks who are going to get challenged in the world anyway.
EVANS: Chambers also spoke on how these ideas take shape in his own classrooms. How do you guide a discussion so that all members feel free to speak, and in a way that keeps the conversation relevant, productive and respectful?
CHAMBERS: We, we do, we really do try to get away from, “This is my opinion.” Although even when we get students saying this is my opinion, um, I remind folks, “Guess what, any opinion that comes out -- unless it's really crazy, and we don't tend to have those -- will be an opinion that one of your clients may well have.”
So as a consequence, we can, we can -- we can always argue around the fact that someone believes something by saying, “Look, this is an opinion, right? Whether it's held by this individual or not, this is an opinion.” One, we need to make sure that we are respectful of it, but we absolutely ought to evaluate and, and talk through it.
So I've been lucky -- in my classes I don't feel it that much, although I do hear people say that they may be reluctant to, to say things in class. Um, now, that, that's, you know, that's always a situation that's kind of fraught because … it's easy to say that you were afraid to say something as opposed to saying, “I hadn't really thought it out the whole way.” And, and, “It's not that I was afraid to say it; I was afraid of what the response would be.” And those are two slightly different questions.
EVANS: Before we get too far ahead of ourselves to the present day, let’s step back again to a couple other events that got student leaders talking and thinking critically about free speech and racism on campus.
I mentioned the gingerbread houses, but another more direct instance of white supremacist speech on campus was when stickers with white supremacist messages were disseminated around campus during move-in week for fall of 2019. Patriot Front, a neo-Nazi organization, claimed the stickers were theirs and posted pictures of them on Twitter.
UR denounced the stickers’ messages, of course, and destroyed the stickers themselves. But this became another moment when some students didn’t think the administration was doing enough.
Crutcher sent out an email to the campus community, writing: “At UR, we are creating a community of care and intellect. We also remain firmly dedicated to fostering a campus community that is safe and welcoming for people of all backgrounds, experiences and identities.”
He continued: “I [did] not name the group because I do not want to support their strategy of using incidents of this nature to raise their own profile and drive traffic to their various communications. It is for this same reason that I intend to be very careful in the future using broad-based communications of this sort that help fulfill the goals of drawing attention to hate-filled organizations and agendas.”
Miranda Barbosa was the then-president of UR’s Solidarity Organization for Latinx Students, or SOLS, and said Crutcher’s response did not do enough to address the incident. And she did not agree with Crutcher’s decision to keep out the group’s name.
This is less than a month after 23 people were killed in an El Paso, Texas, Wal-Mart. And the shooter targeted Latin Americans. Barbosa said that on the heels of the El Paso shooting -- which the administration did not directly respond to in the way it did to, say, Charlottesville -- the response to the white supremacist stickers lacked something. Here’s Barbosa.
MIRANDA BARBOSA: You’re already on high alert, I mean -- I was, I couldn’t go out following that when …. I remember the first time I went to Walmart, I -- my paranoia -- I couldn’t even do it. I had to leave.
So it was those stickers. I didn't, I already didn't feel safe, but after the stickers, I mean …. They love to police campus. Police is always driving around. So they love to use policing all the time, and I'm like, “Um, I could use some policing right now.” I would want heightened security after that, for me to feel safe.
So I felt like he didn't really specify actionable steps that he was taking. And it’s not really his job to, kind of, be censoring and deciding what information he should give to us. It's really about being transparent so that I know exactly what’s going on when I’m feeling this way, and I can decide, you know, how to feel about it or form my own opinions on the subject.
EVANS: She continued, regarding the decision to not name the group:
BARBOSA: It may be attention, but it's negative attention. And regardless of whether, however the group feels about it, which is irrelevant, it's us being outraged -- as we should be. It kind of, I feel like it desensitizes us to these things, just saying, “Oh, another group did it --” No. There's actually white supremacist groups, named X, Y, and Z, and it is terrifying.
I mean, it just feels like, what is it going to take for us to really feel enraged and do something about it? And I think a lot of the time, I don't know, fear maybe drives people to do things? It’s just -- I think we need to call things for what they are and know who did it, and as a society decide what context we’re going to put these names and people in.
EVANS: And more broadly regarding the issue of free speech on campus, Barbosa had this to say:
BARBOSA: It's just things like this, that we should be upset and very vocal. Why are you invoking free speech when, really, there's many views that we should not tolerate. And words lead to violence. So why are we allowing violence to be incited by these viewpoints? Not all viewpoints should be protected, and that's the … reality of it.
Aquila Maliyekkal, who just graduated in May, was the speaker of Richmond College Student Government Association in 2018 through 2020. He also supported the free speech policy and was involved in a lot of discussions about free speech throughout his tenure in student government.
He had a different view on the racist stickers, and free speech more generally, from Barbosa, saying at the time that his ideal free speech code would allow almost any sort of speech on campus outside of those that can be constitutionally suppressed, such as true threats and defamation.
Maliyekkal said, at the time: “Does that mean I want students to espouse white supremacy on campus? Absolutely not. But it does mean that if students subscribe to that ideology, the best way to undercut it is to dismantle it ideologically and publicly instead of letting it fester and grow among people who may feel disaffected or resentful.”
He talked about this instance in a recent interview with The Collegian too.
MALIYEKKAL: One thing I noted, or at least I personally noticed throughout the course of that, um, is that it wasn't particularly the free speech advocates -- um, like people that were pushing for the creation of free speech policy -- that tied the white supremacist stickers, um, to the issue of free speech.
Because, for example, if you look at the draft statement that was put out by the university a couple months ago, they were very clear that there are certain exceptions, including ones that target specific individuals for threat or harassment. Which, um -- stuff like the racist graffiti that we saw on doors or even just generally white supremacist message being posted on a private property like the university clearly already violates that.
Most, mostly what I viewed as -- or what I observed -- is it really wasn't the advocates for free speech that were making the conversation on white supremacist stickers about it. More often it was students who viewed the movement to increase free expression on campus, um, as really just a covert way to weaponize speech or weaponize a right-wing agenda, um, that would try and tie it to that. Say, essentially, um: “Look, you guys are talking about free speech. And this is a concrete example of how hateful people are targeting specific members of our campus community. Why is this or why is it not protected by this new push for free speech?”
EVANS: Like Greven, Maliyekkal stressed how a free speech policy like the one recently passed can be beneficial for all people on campus, no matter their socioeconomic, racial or ethnic status.
MALIYEKKAL: I guess I will just say one thing as it relates to free speech and issues of racism on campus. Um, and it’s that I think it can be very easy -- and understandable -- for students to look at pushes for free expression on campus as examples of the right wing trying to weaponize speech or to stifle minority voices.
Um, but … free speech means free speech for everyone. Um, and historically speaking, our idea of free speech and free expression has not been associated with the right. It's been with the civil rights movement; it's with the new left movement in the late 1960s with the free speech movement at Berkeley.
Who it is that is being the major proponent for free speech has certainly changed, but the ideas and ideals of free expression on college campus are universal and not partisan. Um, and they certainly are not incompatible with the idea of people that are racially conscious or ethnically conscious.
Um, and I just want to caution people that want to view free speech, um, and race and, and racial sensitivity as a zero sum game and they're marginally and diametrically opposed, to just consider more often how they can feed and enhance each other, then to view them as antithetical.
EVANS: He said that the free speech policy was a regular part of RCSGA meetings and really became a huge discussion point after racist epithets were graffitied on students’ dorm room doors one weekend this past January.
MALIYEKKAL: It was like someone had taken every campus controversy we've been dealing with for the last three years and put it on HGH. Um, things just got, like, turned up to 11. Because I mean contextually, keep in mind, we have been working on the free speech stuff for the last, at least, two years.
And a lot of the pushback with certain parts of the campus community was that free speech was quote unquote being weaponized, specifically to stifle historically marginalized groups. Um, I don't agree with that characterization, but that was probably the most significant pushback to that.
EVANS: On the other side of campus, in student government, we also talked with senior Mysia Perry who is chair of the senate for Westhampton College Government Association. The free speech policy has been a conversation in WCGA just as much as RCSGA, and she had this to say about it generally as relates to race and racist events on campus.
MYSIA PERRY: I’ve known Alec all four years, and I can see why he’s been dedicated to this project and why this is his project and why he backs it so well. But I also have to, of course, align with my identities. I identify as a queer, Black woman. And as a queer, Black woman, I have to know that these things can be conflicting to my identity. Like, as a queer, Black woman, as a person that belongs to marginalized groups -- several [laughs] marginalized groups -- free speech, uh, statements, in the ways they’re being created through his movement, can be very damning to my place on this campus.
It can allow people to do hateful things to me, um, and to my peers in ways that can be really, really hard to make this a safe space. I think this is something that we talk about a lot on campus, and a lot, as you know, in WCGA. When we’re thinking about, like, how are the clubs and organizations on campus, um, creating communities for inclusion -- and it’s, like, there are Instagrams and things like that that literally promote hate on this campus.
How are we supposed to be dedicated to, uh, making excellence inclusive while also supporting and funding clubs and organizations that do such hateful things to people on our campus, you know?
EVANS: She talked about president Crutcher’s responses in particular. And as we move further along here in the timeline, closer to our current moment, it’s worth taking some time to see how president Crutcher’s reponses have changed in tone, at least to some students like Perry.
And we’ll note here that president Crutcher declined to comment for this podcast.
I read his email following Charlottesville earlier, and you also heard a student criticize his response to the white supremacist stickers. But following the January graffiti, some students, such as Perry, identified a change in tone.
In his email to students, faculty and staff following the racist graffiti in January, he wrote: “This cowardly and racist act is profoundly hurtful and deeply offensive. The fact that this occurred on our campus the very week we commemorate the birth and historical legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes this all the more disgusting. I say this both as president of the University of Richmond and an African American.
“An act of racism against any of us on this campus is an act that affronts all of us, and everything we are committed to as a university community. We will not tolerate members of our community being targeted for harassment based on their identities. We must come together as a community to denounce racist actions and to support and embrace members of our community who are subject to such conduct.”
He continued later: “This incident reminds us anew that racism remains a pernicious force in our society and on our campus. It angers and frustrates me that these incidents continue. I want to state clearly: We remain fully dedicated to fostering a campus community that is safe and welcoming for people of all backgrounds, experiences and identities.”
And now, here’s Perry’s re-accounting of her reaction to that email.
PERRY: When it came to this January, I think, um, like Dr. Ashe and many of the other students in our class, I was very -- I want to say pleasantly surprised, but, surprised, um … I think Dr. Ashe and several other students and students of color were very surprised and very shook by the way Dr. Crutcher responded to things.
Because usually Dr. Crutcher can be a little bit more reserved and a little bit, um, less outcoming when it comes with his perspectives on things like this. And, um, it can seem like, um, he’s kind of trying to, like, play … nice? And I get that, and, like, I’m so used, just, purely of my own expectations and understanding of what it is and I -- just, like, outward look from my own perspective.
Um, but just feeling like sometimes it can seem like playing nice and, like, trying to appease everyone, which can seem kind of, like, um … ingenuine. Um, and I think for that, that instance it was eye-opening to have him be very outright and very, like, condemning of some of the things that happened.
Um, and very powerful for a lot of students of color on campus, I think, um, to kind of feel backed. But also at the same time kind of feeling like, “Where has this energy been this whole time?”
I would like to think that it would represent a shift, um, I think that this year will definitely come, um, with a bit of representation of whether it is true, some truth to that. Um, I think unfortunately with coronavirus, we all kind of got pushed off campus before we could see if there was any truth to that, personally on campus. So I’m hoping that we’ll see more of that kind of energy and, kind of, support for the student body and student concerns, um, outwardly from him?
And I’m hopeful that that will be a way that he will continue to shift to show more of his perspective as a Black man. Because though he leads a predominantly white institution he can’t ignore his Black identity, and that’s something that, um, is really valuable for a lot of the students of color on campus I think -- for him to acknowledge that even in his day-to-day, um, work.
EVANS: In early February the administration also led a public forum in the Alice Haynes Room in the Tyler Haynes Commons where students were allowed to speak freely about the racist graffiti. More than 100 students couldn’t even fit in Alice Haynes and watched a stream in other parts of the Commons or elsewhere on campus.
There was no great emphasis on free speech in this case, and of course the racist graffiti would not be protected speech under the current university policy. But this was also a response from UR that allowed students the chance to speak with a microphone for a couple minutes at a time for more than an hour in front of peers, administrators and faculty. The microphone was passed around the room to students of color, and they were able to share their experiences.
This was a different event from Charlottesville, of course, and I want to be careful not to equate the two and what they meant to our campus. The racist graffiti was on our campus, and the act was presumably committed by one of our fellow students.
But regardless of the precise nature of the event, student activism had grown, and administrators did not try and censor student comments at the Alice Haynes forum.
But not every student thought this kind of administrative response went far enough. TJ Tann is a senior who’s also a part of Crutcher’s mentorship program, and he has been a part of several student activist efforts including trying to make a multicultural space building and the push for an Africana studies department. Here are some of his thoughts on the Alice Haynes forum.
TJ TANN: I think when it comes to that, that forum, you know, some think that, you know, giving -- giving students the opportunity to, to speak, um, did some real justice.
It's a difference between hard support and soft support. And I think that that forum was a form of soft support. Actions where, you know, an attack happened on a few students. Um, it rose to the level of, “Everyone at the university is aware of it; the university needs to do something about it.”
But, you know, if you -- if you ask yourself what actually came about from that night, I couldn't exactly tell you what, besides a lot of students spilling out their trauma in front of an entire school.
That’s my take on it. You know, where -- this is great, right? Because, you know, for a lot of students, I think it was really impactful. Who, people -- students who didn't realize what was going on on campus on such a regular basis -- that it kind of woke a lot of people up.
And I think there's -- there’s true value in that, and there’s true value in the university facilitating that.
Um, but you know, we -- my thinking is that we’ve got to go farther and we got to go …. It's always more to be done. Um, and I think that if you -- if you sit down and ask yourself, like … other than hearing the experiences, the hard experiences of students of color at that forum, um, what was really done to address this -- the systemic issues of, of segregation, racism, prejudices at the university at a root level?
The forum, I think, was really great in, in making a lot of people aware. Um, and I think that the university definitely had a good intention with trying to organize that. But, you know, I don't think it was a concrete action in this step of -- um, addressing a lot of these systemic issues.
EVANS: The free speech policy will likely continue to be adjusted. We certainly weren’t able to go into every issue surrounding free speech on college campuses in this episode today. But I do hope this was able to provide some context about how and why free speech has come up surrounding certain racist events at UR in the past few years.
And the way UR has responded to instances of racism has evolved too, though there are still institutional questions to be answered. Students are still pushing for an Africana studies department; they continue to advocate for a dedicated multicultural space; and recent efforts to abolish white Greek life are ongoing, still waiting for a real response from administrators.
Will our campus see rigorous debate around these issues from students on all sides? Will the free speech policy work to include all voices in a democratic way that protects inclusivity?
We’ll have to see. But until then, thank you for listening.
This episode of Beneath the Surface was written, narrated and reported by me, Conner Evans.
Additional reporting was provided by Jay Welle and Grace Kiernan.
The story was edited by Nina Joss.
And our music, as always, was graciously provided by Nathan Burns.
Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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