The Collegian
Sunday, April 11, 2021

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Free speech statement intends to guide policy

<p>The tower at Boatwright Memorial Library extends out of the building.</p>

The tower at Boatwright Memorial Library extends out of the building.

University of Richmond President Ronald Crutcher describes the Statement on Free Expression as a “living document” that can change over time, giving UR community members the opportunity to continue dialogue surrounding freedom of speech on campus.

“The intention is that each generation of Spiders will see the statement as an invitation, if you will, to engage in robust and necessary dialogue about what free expression means to our campus and what kind of intellectual community we aspire to be,” Crutcher said in an interview with The Collegian. 

The push for UR to clearly define its policy on free expression officially started on April 11, 2018, when the Richmond College Student Government Association passed a resolution urging UR to develop freedom of expression guidelines similar to those of the University of Chicago. The statement released by UR this year is not a policy, but a set of principles meant to guide policy, Crutcher said. 

Crutcher announced the final statement, endorsed by the Board of Trustees, in a Feb. 1 email to the UR community. Before this, though, UR held three events last semester to consider modifications to an initial statement draft. This initial draft was a recommended statement created by the Task Force on Free Expression, which Crutcher released in a May 7, 2020, email to the UR community. 

The first event, held on Nov. 5 last year, was open to students, faculty and staff. It was intended to prime the community to have a knowledgeable conversation regarding the First Amendment, according to a Nov. 2 email announcing the event. 

Students then had a Zoom discussion about free expression on Nov. 10, and faculty and staff had a Zoom discussion on Nov. 12, according to the Nov. 2 email.  

Junior Meghna Melkote attended the student conversation, she said, in which attendees were put in breakout rooms to discuss their thoughts on free speech and the task force’s recommended statement.

“It was very important to get students’ feedback because, obviously, it's a policy that governs students,” Melkote said. “It's important because it's going to guide a lot of, kind of, our university values and serve as an expression of our values; so obviously it's important to get input from the students who are presumably supposed to be sharing those values.”

Crutcher was impressed by the quality of the student discussions, he said.

“I came away feeling ... our students are very eager to have more spaces and opportunities to have dialogue about difficult topics,” he said. “I felt energized by it.”

The final statement states that visiting speakers will not be disinvited from UR even if students find their views offensive. Instead of allowing the limitation of campus speakers, the statement recommends students vocalize their opposition to speech they might find offensive.

Senior Phil Daniel disagrees with that approach, he said.

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“I don't think an institution, especially an institution that says that it's inclusive and is making efforts to make sure that everybody feels safe and protected — they should not be enabling people who are known to be problematic, known to be racist, transphobic, homophobic — anything that contributed to the current state of power dynamics and oppression against marginalized groups,” Daniel said. 

Crutcher recalled the protest against Ryan Anderson,  an author with anti-transgender views who was invited to campus a few years in 2018, as a good way for students to counter a speaker with views that students deem offensive. Crutcher said that the demonstration was peaceful. 

Protesters attended Anderson's event wearing white and holding signs showing the names of transgender people who had been killed or died by suicide, according to a Collegian article published on Sept. 12, 2018. 

Melkote likewise sees protests as a way to combat speakers with offensive views — and as a better way than disinviting them, she said.

“A better response would be to meet that speech with more speech to condemn it widely on a university level, and to show our values rather than simply just uninviting them," Melkote said.

Melkote said, however, that the burden of combating offensive speech would fall on students.  

When asked about the work of denouncing offensive speech, Crutcher acknowledged that the burden to speak out against injustice often falls on the targets of injustice, who are often minorities. However, Crutcher said the whole UR community should come together to denounce racist incidents, as many did during protests that happened after racist epithets were written on students’ doors in 2020. 

Although the statement encourages students to protest, it also places limits on the time, place and manner of protests.

“The focus is really on time and place designations so that we want to ensure that, for instance, people are not obstructing traffic on the roads; that they're not disturbing the classes; that if you're going to be indoors, it's not going to be in violation of fire codes,” Crutcher said.

Daniel disagreed with the limits on protests because he thinks students should have full control over how they choose to protest.

“I am aware that all institutions are a business, and so they're going to do whatever they can to protect their good name or cause the least amount of controversy as possible,” Daniel said. “But at the end of the day, when it comes to protests the process should always be handled by the students. No censoring should come from the institution."

On the other hand, Melkote thinks there should be clearly defined limits on how students can protest.

“I think the restrictions would have to be very narrowly tailored,” she said. “So, the restrictions would have to be: If it could pose a threat of violence against the community; if it could severely disrupt our campus in a way that would cause violence.” 

Racial epithets or other speech will not be restricted unless they are used against specific people with the intent to cause physical harm, Crutcher said.

"If you make that racial slur to a person and you have a knife or a gun or something in your hand, and then ask, and indicate that you're trying to harm the individual that is protected by case law," Crutcher said.

Melkote thinks that limiting free speech does not directly address the issues that cause hateful speech, which is why she supports UR's Statement on Free Speech, she said.

“I'm very sympathetic to the arguments of the need to protect students, and I think that the best way to do it is to actively work towards creating a more anti-racist campus,” Melkote said. “To create a campus that is more inclusive of students from all gender identities, and all sexualities, and to create a campus where we can protect free expression and where potentially hateful speech would not happen.”

Managing editor Emma Davis contributed to reporting.

Contact news editor Jackie Llanos at jackie.llanos@richmond.edu.

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