Last Thursday, the editorial board of the Cavalier Daily, UVA’s primary student-run news publication, published an opinion piece titled “Dangerous rhetoric is not entitled to a platform.” The article criticizes the University for allowing Young Americans for Freedom at UVA—a student-run organization on Grounds—to sponsor an event in which former Vice President Mike Pence will speak. It argues that Pence’s rhetoric is violent, and thus unprotected. It then goes on to assert that his invitation to Grounds “blatantly threatens” the lives of UVA students, and that the University’s indifference on the matter, as well as its refusal to cancel the event, directly puts the community at risk.
For those of us at The Jefferson Independent, this argument does not necessarily come as a surprise. Students at the University of Virginia have displayed their childish hostility to any and all differing opinions on countless occasions, whether it be defacing flyers posted by certain student groups, painting over certain political messages on Beta Bridge, doxxing and harassing students on social media, or turning the University Judiciary Committee into a body that unjustly punishes peers who fail to toe a certain ideological line. What should shock the greater community, however, is the Cavalier Daily’s sanctimonious assertion that its seven-member editorial board holds the full authority to define what constitutes free speech and what doesn’t.
The Cavalier Daily is not the arbiter of free speech, the definer of words, or the judge of what constitutes right versus wrong— and it should not, therefore, recommend that the University of Virginia endow itself with those titles in its place. In fact, claiming the ultimate authority to deplatform certain speech is far more dangerous to the UVA community—and society at large—than allowing it to be said.
As an Editorial Board that firmly upholds our nation’s Constitution, we value the importance of alternative thoughts, views, morals, and beliefs— and denounce all efforts to silence them. We will make two reasoned arguments in this statement: first, that the Cavalier Daily’s opinion bases itself on poor arguments, and second, that all speech is entitled to a platform.
The Cavalier Daily’s article cites instances over the past year where the question of free speech has prompted debate on Grounds. It mentions an event in October that defended Thomas Jefferson’s legacy—also sponsored by YAF at UVA—as an attempt to “glorify a known enslaver who exploited Black labor to construct the University.” In reality, the hosts and guests of the event concurred that much of Jefferson’s past is indefensible, but that there is still room to acknowledge many of Jefferson’s ideas, for they ultimately contributed to the progression of the human race, set a framework for equality, and founded a world-class university that even Cav Daily journalists chose to attend. The article also mentions the controversy over a pro-life speaker hosted by the Federalist Society, who was criticized for being “one-sided” on the issue of abortion. Part of the virtue of free expression is that speech is allowed to be one-sided; writers at the Cavalier Daily benefit from this perk every day. So did Ibram X. Kendi, when he was invited not by a student organization, but by the University administration itself, to speak about critical race theory.
With an ever-increasing left-leaning majority at UVA, the students at the Cav Daily have apparently forgotten that former Vice President Pence’s political ideas are supported by almost half of the American public and thus hold value in our national political discourse, regardless of them being controversial or not. The piece addresses the opinions held by Pence as transphobic, homophobic, and racist. It references Pence’s support for a zero-tolerance immigration policy as proof of him being anti-immigrant, but fails to distinguish between illegal and legal immigration and ignores the fact that the article cited literally writes that Pence thought many of the people in question had “legitimate asylum claims.” It falsely tries to associate him with the 2018 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, using the “very fine people” lie that the press conference transcript debunks on its own. It seeks to associate Pence with the motives behind the 1898 construction of Old Cabell Hall—which is the venue where he will speak—without mentioning that Martin Luther King, Jr. also spoke in the same auditorium in 1963, and a plaque commemorating MLK’s visit is installed there today. Making blanket statements such as these do not validate the CD’s argument, nor prove Pence’s speech is dangerous. What also doesn’t help their cause is the fact that one short glance at sixty-two year old Pence suggests he probably couldn’t hurt a fly. The same cannot be said for figures like Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, who are actively torturing and killing people.
The Cavalier Daily’s overarching argument stands on a questionable foundation. Instead of encouraging reasonable discussion, as one would expect from a publication at such a revered institution as UVA, it degrades itself with hysterical outrage and attention-seeking hyperbole. Publishing a student’s thoughts about suicide so as to rescind Mike Pence’s invitation is an exaggerated emotional plea—not a sound argument—and has nothing to do with whether a speaker is permitted the right to speak. The University is not endorsing what Mike Pence will be saying, nor will it be mandating the entire student body to attend; it is ludicrous to peddle the claim that Pence’s presence will naturally cause students harm.
The article goes on to say that it wants to examine more closely the definition of “diversity of thought,” immediately after which it claims that “hateful rhetoric is violent.” If we must reexamine the definition of “diversity of thought,” let us also examine the definition of violence. Words, by their very nature, cannot be violent. Violence is physical. Words are not. It is perfectly reasonable to disagree with the former vice president or abhor the policies he has endorsed. But to say that his words, by themselves, are capable of killing people, conflates dialogue with physical injury or murder, and reduces the meaning and severity of real violence. Dialogue does not cause bodily harm; murder does.
Revoking one’s right to speak, on the basis of another’s offense to it, not only deprives individuals of the freedom to hear a new viewpoint, but also robs dissenters from getting a chance to respond. Denouncing speech as hurtful simply because one does not like what is being said, shows a lack of willingness—and perhaps a lack of capacity—to respond with reasoned counterarguments. If certain speech is so undeniably dangerous, so easily refutable, and so misinformed as to be banned, why can’t the Cavalier Daily respond with arguments that are superior?
Such illiberal logic demonstrated in their argument is evidence of the current social war on open discourse across college campuses. The push to deplatform speakers that hold opinions some might disagree with only discourages intellectual exploration and weakens general knowledge. When free speech is suppressed and only certain speech is approved, people subsequently become discouraged to speak their minds. This perpetuates a culture of strict ideological conformity, where individuals choose not to display their opinions for fear of being shunned, doxxed, or canceled. A student at UVA recently published an article in the New York Times detailing the dangers of this exact idea and its abundance on Grounds. She contends that when those who seek to cancel speech get their way, they create an environment of “self-censorship” and discourage real debate. Classrooms ultimately become “monotonous echo chambers.” This climate exists in academia, and has devalued its credibility as an institution. The Cavalier Daily’s editorial is proof of it. Having a former government official speak on a college campus should not be controversial. If anything, it should be normal, or even mundane. Instead, the announcement of Pence’s lecture has exposed UVA for the behavior it has cultivated amongst its students: They not only detest freedom of expression— they want to dictate who can have it.
In response to media attention generated from both the scheduled event and the editorial, President Jim Ryan and Ian Baucom, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, published their own piece in the Cavalier Daily. They contended that the “differing perspectives” surrounding the lecture prove that free expression is “alive and well” at UVA. We at The Jeff are grateful for President Ryan’s commitment to keep the lecture scheduled, which is in line with the University’s duty to foster rigorous intellectual debate (as well as in line with federal law, since the University is a public institution). However, we cannot help but view his message as anything other than a PR stunt to placate very real concerns about freedom on Grounds.
President Ryan’s article says that one of the school’s goals is to allow students to “decide for themselves, as active members of our democracy, which ideas they support and which they oppose.” This statement holds little water given the reality of the past two years. In the summer of 2021, students were threatened with expulsion from the University if they did not receive doses of an experimental vaccine, and had no say in regards to other various mandates that proved to have devastating impacts on their college experience and general well-being. Having bodily autonomy, or even an open discussion about it, was not something students were entitled to have or “decide for themselves.” The pandemic response was perpetuated under the guise of “student self-government,” which we now understand to be a total fallacy. Moreover, opinions such as those presented in the Cavalier Daily confirm that many students at UVA have not been exposed to an environment of differing opinions or a culture of debate, considering they take offense to opinions held by tens of millions of people across the United States. Nevertheless, we truly value President Ryan’s statement, and implore the administration to continue working on promoting ideological diversity and individual freedom at the University in the future.
In closing, we, as UVA students who are committed to upholding free speech and free inquiry, and as members of The Jefferson Independent Editorial Board, denounce all efforts to censor speech and enforce conformity on Grounds, and reject all calls to cancel opportunities for valuable civil discourse. Furthermore, we encourage all students—and specifically those who dislike or disagree with the former vice president’s politics—to attend the lecture on April 12th. We urge community members, including members of the Cavalier Daily, to listen, ask thought-provoking questions, and challenge the lecture with counter arguments that seek to generate productive discourse, both within the audience and across the greater community. We look forward to contributing to the continuing discussion, and we hope to see you there.