Free Speech Lives at the University of Virginia!

by James A. Bacon

Former Vice President Mike Pence came to the University of Virginia last night, attended two receptions, and delivered his speech, billed as “How to Save America from the Woke Left,” without a hitch.

The Pence event created a national stir when the editorial board of The Cavalier Daily student newspaper said that Pence should not be allowed to speak because his conservative views would prove offensive and hurtful to many. The editorial generated a tidal wave of response in support of Pence’s right to give the speech and students’ right to hear it. Seventeen faculty members of diverse political views signed a letter in defense of the speech. President Jim Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom published an op-ed in a higher-ed trade journal defending free speech.

Political science professor Larry Sabato, perhaps UVa’s best known faculty member, has been highly critical of President Donald Trump, but he hosted a reception for Trump’s vice president in a pavilion on the Lawn before the speech. The veep attended a second reception across the Lawn, hosted by the Young America’s Foundation, which, in partnership with The Jefferson Council, underwrote the cost of the event.

It was a pleasant spring evening, and throngs of students were hanging out on the Lawn, but there was no unpleasantness to be seen. The University had created an area where protesters could gather, which a modest number did, but they were peaceful and barely noticed by the hundreds of visitors as they lined up for security checks outside Old Cabell Hall.

The auditorium was standing room only. Some people were turned away because they could not obtain tickets. The audience was comprised, in rough proportions, half of students and half alumni and other adults. Judging by frequent and enthusiastic applause, the crowd was very pro-Pence. A small fraction of students refrained from applause, engaging in restrained “golf” claps, but they were polite and respectful.

As for the speech itself, Pence was not nearly as confrontational as the title of his speech suggested he might be. While he did have a few choice comments for “woke” ideology, he focused mainly upon positive themes of defending freedom and faith and upholding the Constitution — all in a spirit of civility. He steered away from culture-war issues in the speech, although he did touch upon them in direct response to questions.

When asked about champion UVa swimmer Emma Weyant’s loss to a transgender athlete in a recent championship race, Pence said forcefully (and to thunderous applause) that Weyant was the winner and the true champion. When asked how he would respond if one of his children told him they were gay, he responded, “I would say, ‘I love you.'”

Both Pence and Trump are openly exploring the possibility of running for president in 2024. Pence’s tone was the diametric opposite of that of his old boss. There was no mockery, no hyperbole, no braggadocio. In contrast to Trump’s demagogic charisma, Pence was measured, civil, and self-effacing. Whether his demeanor proves more in tune with the GOP electorate than Trump’s remains to be seen.

What I found encouraging was the enthusiasm displayed by students in the auditorium. There are three or four conservative/Republican organizations on the UVa grounds but they have little impact on broader university culture. I have heard repeatedly from conservative students who say they withdraw from the public sphere, censor themselves in class, and keep their heads down. Judging by the attendance at the Pence speech, it is clear that a significant percentage of the UVa student population is hungry to hear conservative viewpoints.

I am proud that The Jefferson Council has played a role in expanding the spectrum of permissible political discourse at UVa. When it comes to free speech, expression and inquiry, Mr. Jefferson’s University is freer today than it was a year ago. I am hopeful that it will be freer still — and allow for an even more vibrant exchange of ideas — a year from now.

Full disclosure: I serve as a member of The Jefferson Council board of directors.