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Crutcher, free speech project director discuss UR's recommended free speech statement

<p>Maryland Hall, the location of the University of Richmond Advancement Office.</p>

Maryland Hall, the location of the University of Richmond Advancement Office.

President Ronald Crutcher and Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Campus Free Expression Project, discussed the University of Richmond's Recommended Statement on Free Expression in a Zoom event held at 12:30 p.m. Thursday. 

Crutcher opened the event by stating its three goals: to create an understanding of the First Amendment and its protections, to define terms relevant to free expression and to create dialogue and encourage feedback about UR's recommended statement, he said. The recommended statement was released to the UR community on May 7. 

Merrill discussed the five rights included in the First Amendment — freedom of religion, speech, press, petition and assembly — and highlighted examples of how the First Amendment has improved the United States, including the 19th Amendment, the Civil Rights Movement, the Me Too movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, and is a contested aspect to creating a free expression it should be tolerated for two reasons, Merrill said at the Zoom event. 

"First, even if we could come up with a definition for hate speech — which, at present, there is no legal definition of hate speech in this country — it could be turned around into a rule that could be used against and used to suppress the opinion of underrepresented groups," Merrill said. "Second, it's not like when we have a rule against hateful expression that the thoughts against that expression go away. Instead, as we've seen with white nationalism, making something taboo can make it even more alluring. It's when we allow that expression, as hurtful as it can be, that we have a chance to counter it." 

The University of Chicago created a freedom of expression statement in 2015. Since then, over 75 campuses have created statements of their own, Merrill said. No single freedom of expression statement is a perfect fit for every university, and the ones that are most successful are those that reflect the institution's history and mission, Merrill said. 

Kenny Buchholz, a student in the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, attended the event because he was interested in the topic of free speech as it applies in an academic setting, he said. 

"Virtually every time a topic becomes even remotely political, in terms of my experience, professors back away and want to talk about in a metaphorical way and say, 'I can't express my personal opinion,' and I find that really bothersome," Buchholz said. 

"I feel as though there's a real imposed restriction, which is why [the recommended statement] interests me so much."

There was a Q&A box open to those who attended the event. In the box, Buchholz asked, "How does giving a transphobe Ryan Anderson — who approaches transgenderism purely from a political agenda — a podium by himself, so that he can spout his agenda and only be challenged from those below him, [do] anything but promote (and co-sign) intolerance?"

Ryan Anderson, author of "When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment," spoke at the T.C. Williams School of Law in September 2018. Students and faculty protested Anderson's appearance because of his transphobic views. Anderson was invited to campus by a UR Law student group, the Federalist Society

Crutcher said in response to Buchholz's question that at the time he had been concerned having Anderson on campus would cause pain to LGBTQ+ students, some of whom had contacted him asking him to cancel the visit. Although he does not share Anderson's beliefs, Crutcher felt there were educational reasons to allow him to speak, he said. Law professor Jud Campbell also provided a rebuttal to Anderson's remarks at the 2018 event, according to the Collegian article about the event, which Crutcher thought was important to encourage discussion and debate, Crutcher said. 

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"Some students, underrepresented students, may perceive that they don't have equal access," Crutcher said at the Zoom event. "I think we have to understand that and support them, but we have to also help them to look inside themselves and develop their inner strength to develop counter speech in some fashion — by protesting, by writing, by speaking. I think that's our role as educators." 

Crutcher said something he would have done differently would have been to send a statement to the entire campus to reaffirm UR's commitment to the LGBTQ+ community. 

Sylvia Gale, the interim executive director of the Bonner Center of Civic Engagement, attended Thursday's event and has previously provided feedback to the Task Force on Free Expression, she said. 

"I think it was really helpful to have [Merrill's] perspective as someone who has worked with campuses across the country on statements like this, so I really appreciated that broader perspective," Gale said. "I also appreciated President Crutcher's framing that he seemed to return to several times that, underneath this statement, there's desire to have a University of Richmond campus environment where all students have access to the microphone, where ideas are debated, discussed, and that's the way we do it." 

Gale was glad she attended the event but does not feel that there has been broad participation on campus in relation to the statement, she said. This has left her unsure of the impact of an event like Thursday's, she said. 

Gale has concerns about the statement and how it was drafted, she said. 

"I think it's really important that it's a democratic process and that there's a lot of dialogue," Gale said. "These are such important issues and there's not an easy, clear answer as to the right way to do this. How do you create a space where there are ideas that are really taken seriously and there is dialogue and debate, and at the same time people feel safe and it's an inclusive environment that welcomes diverse perspectives?

"I would really like to see more invitation to the community to engage in vigorous conversation about the statement, and then some reflection back from those crafting the statement that they've listened to and considered that."

There will be two events this week discussing the recommended statement. The first, to be held at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 10, is an information session with the Westhampton and Richmond student government associations designed to provide more information about the statement and give students an opportunity to provide feedback. The second event, to be held at 3 p.m. on Nov. 12, will be moderated by law professor Hank Chambers and give faculty and staff the opportunity to provide feedback. 

“Our purpose with the statement is not to create a university policy on free expression," Crutcher said. “Rather, the final statement will serve as a living document reflecting our community’s values and aspirations with respect to free expression at this moment in our history. 

"The statement will always remain open to debate and reconsideration, enlivened by the words and deeds of each new generation of Spiders.”

Contact news writer Meredith Moran at meredith.moran@richmond.edu.

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