Free Speech Under Assault Across Virginia

Threats to freedom of speech grow by the day in the Old Dominion. Consider the latest news stories:

  • VCU Protesters broke up a speech by pro-life activist Kristan Hawkins with chants and obscenities. Two pro-lifers suffered minor injuries in a fight that broke out. VCU police broke up the fight but canceled the event.
  • More than 7,000 faculty and students at George Mason University have signed a petition to disinvite Governor Glenn Youngkin from delivering the university’s commencement address.
  • Matt Walsh, a conservative pundit critical of the trans movement, has postponed a speech at Washington & Lee, where a campaign to disinvite him had taken root.

Of these, the most worrisome for Virginians is the VCU protest. GMU President Gregory Washington has held firm so far on the commencement invitation, so it appears that Governor Younkin will not be canceled. And it appears that Walsh’s decision was influenced by death threats arising from the deadly shootings at a Christian school in Nashville, where he lives, not from anything happening at W&L. But there is no avoiding the fact that the enemies of free speech are getting bolder and more assertive.

The VCU incident was the most disgraceful, and it sets a new low in Virginia.

Students for Life at VCU had invited Hawkins to speak. The event was open to the public and held in the student commons. Of the 70 or so people in attendance, a large number were abortion-rights supporters. They held signs and chanted obscenities. Hawkins tried to engage with hostile members of the crowd, but none were interested. After a half hour of yelling, the protest escalated into a fight. At that point VCU police intervened to break it up.

Here’s the kicker: The police asked Hawkins to leave. As Virginia House Speaker Todd Gilbert noted, VCU should have protected Hawkins’ right to speech rather than shut the event down.

The response of the VCU administration was lame. VCU spokesman Michael Porter said the university was “disappointed” that the event had been disrupted. “VCU is committed to promoting a safe environment for our students, faculty and visitors so that the right to gather and speak freely is protected. We must extended dignity and respect to others, especially those with whom we disagree.”

Porter said the right words. But what about VCU’s actions? It appears that VCU police did not intervene until the situation turned violent, and then told Hawkins to leave. They allowed the protesters to cancel the event.

And what what about VCU President Michael Rao? As far as I can tell, Rao has yet to make a public pronouncement on this grotesque violation of free speech at the institution he leads and for which he sets the tone. He is acting as if the protest had never happened. The administration’s news outlet, VCU News, features a gag April Fool’s Day story today speculating whether Rao and VCU’s Rodney the Ram mascot are one in the same.

The VCU student code of conduct states that students need to “respect the rights and property of others,” and “be open to others’ opinions.” In a March 2020 missive, Provost Charles Klink reiterated that “every member of the VCU community has the fundamental and unalienable right to free speech. This is true even when we find that speech to be abhorrent and antithetical to our core values as a university.”

In light of Thursday’s fiasco, those words ring hollow.

VCU police were present at the event, so the police department apparently was aware of the potential for conflict. At the University of Virginia and other institutions, when protesters threaten to shut down a speech, university representatives give a warning to desist in the disruptive behavior. If that doesn’t work, a representative of the police gives a warning. If that doesn’t work, then the police intervene to remove the protesters. That’s the policy at least.

It’s not clear from scattered media reports — mostly conservative media — if VCU police followed that protocol. It’s not clear if VCU police even have a protocol.

The VCU community deserves an explanation of how the disruption was allowed to happen and what Rao is prepared to do to ensure that it will never happen again.

Meanwhile, the voices of intolerance are growing louder and more assertive. Virginia’s population remains overwhelmingly passive — tut-tutting but doing nothing. Perhaps the silent majority thinks that what happens on college campuses will stay on college campuses. That kind of thinking is delusional. Remember Edmund Burke’s immortal words: “Evil succeeds when good men do nothing.”