Free Speech and the Abigail Shrier Event

by James A. Bacon

It is gratifying to see the editors of The Cavalier Daily engage in an exchange of ideas, albeit indirectly through dueling editorials, with conservative proponents of free speech at The Jefferson Independent, the University of Virginia’s independent student publication, and The Jefferson Council.

It is even more gratifying to see that the CD editors embrace a principle in an editorial yesterday with which we whole-heartedly agree: “Free speech does not guarantee comfort” (even though we’re pretty sure that it’s our comfort that deserves no guarantee, not their own).

However, even as they tout the University of Virginia’s No. 6 ranking in the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) 2024 free speech survey, the authors argue that there are justifiable limits on speech — and that those limits should apply to people at UVa whose views they happen to dislike.

The event precipitating the editorial is the impending visit to UVa of Abigail Shrier, a journalist whose writings about the role of social contagion in the spread of transgender identity among adolescent girls has triggered trans activists across the country. “We must … recognize that certain types of speech simply should not be tolerated here on Grounds,” writes the editorial board, “even if this speech is technically permissible under the law.”

Shrier is scheduled to speak at 7:00 p.m., October 11, Room 125 of Minor Hall. You can register to attend the event here.

UVa is to be commended for its No. 6 FIRE ranking, although, to be sure, the competition in American higher ed today is exceptionally weak. The university garnered that rating mainly on the basis of formal UVa policies, such as the Board of Visitors’ endorsement of free speech and viewpoint diversity, and the administration’s enforcement of rules prohibiting the disruption of speeches and events. The Jefferson Council gratefully acknowledges the cooperation of the University Police Department and the office of Student Affairs in ensuring that the Shrier event goes smoothly.

Breakdown of UVa rankings among 248 institutions surveyed. Source: FIRE

However, official policy does not extend to tolerance of “uncomfortable” viewpoints among faculty and students. The same FIRE survey that the CD alluded to also ranked UVa 222nd out of 248 institutions for “comfort with expressing ideas.”

Surely that atrocious statistic can be attributed in some part to fact that the Cavalier Daily, the primary source of university-related news and views for most students, tars those with whom it disagrees as bigots and haters. States the editorial:

If folks in our community use the First Amendment as a vehicle to promote bigotry, we must exercise our own rights to ensure these abhorrent actions do not go unchallenged. When the Jefferson Council hosts a discussion in the coming days with an anti-transgender author, for example, students can and should vehemently protest this decision.

This Editorial Board unequivocally and staunchly opposes the views expressed by this author, and we’ll use our platform to say so. We hope that many other students on Grounds will also take steps to signify their disapproval. Whether this means voicing support for our LGBTQ+ peers, arguing against the decision to platform hate or choosing not to associate with individuals who have demonstrated a proclivity for bigoted beliefs — the decision to share our discontent is consistent with our collective commitment to the freedom of speech, and so too is the claim that anti-transgender voices should have no place in our home.

One of the benefits of free speech and open dialogue is that it creates opportunities to counter factual error. The claim that “anti-transgender voices should have no place in our home” implies that some anti-transgender voices at UVa are saying such a thing. No one does. The assertion is delusional. To the contrary, Shrier gives ample and often sympathetic play to “transgender voices” in her book, “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.”

I would be shocked if any of the editorial writers criticizing Shrier have read the book. In all likelihood whatever they know, or think they know, about Shrier comes third or fourth hand from like-minded sources, which quote other like-minded sources, which quote other like-minded sources. I have read “Irreversible Damage,” and I can tell you that no thinking person can describe her views as “anti-transgender,” much less “bigoted.” To the contrary, she is far more compassionate than ideologues who “affirm” the transgender identity of anxious, depressed adolescent girls by treating them with testosterone injections and breast-removal surgery without the benefit of extensive counseling.

I invite the Cavalier Daily editors to attend the Oct. 11 event and hear what Shrier actually says, as opposed to what her enemies say she says. To attack her views without bothering to learn them first-hand is to revel in ignorance.

As far as our views at the Jefferson Council, we support without reservation the right of UVa students to peacefully protest Shrier’s appearance, and we whole-heartedly support the right of The Cavalier Daily editorial staff to express views that we personally find ill-informed and offensive. Our vision is for UVa to be a place where ideas collide and viewpoints contend.

One more thing: We acknowledge that The Cavalier Daily editorial falls short of demanding that Shrier be disinvited from the grounds. Given the mood on some other college campuses, that’s actually saying something. We are thankful for small favors.

James A. Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council. This column has been republished with permission from The Jefferson Council blog.