UVa Board Backs Ryan on Lawn Signage Issue

Photo credit: Washington Post

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors has issued a statement backing President Jim Ryan for his handling of offensive signs posted on the doors of rooms on the Lawn.

“Simply put, there are no exceptions to the protections afforded by the First Amendment against state attempts to regulate political speech,” says the letter signed by Rector James B. Murray Jr. “We are required to comply with the law, and the law is very clear.”

However, an argument advanced by alumnus Aubrey M. Daniel III in a widely disseminated letter — that the Lawn’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site allows for regulation of expression — might be constitutionally defensible, says the statement, “if it were narrowly tailored to protecting the environment, if it applied neutrally to all opinions and points of view, and if it preexisted any particular controversy.”

The UVa administration has committed to review and clarify appropriate regulation of the Lawn before the next academic year. Meanwhile, says the letter, “we join with President Ryan in describing the current expressions as ‘offensive’ and ‘disheartening.’ It is a matter of sadness and regret that those privileged to live on the Lawn wish to sully that space with insulting profanity rather than to engage in reasoned debate.”

The statement in support of the administration also sought to put the Lawn controversy in a larger context.

The University of Virginia, like all institutions of higher education, faces a trifecta of evils – an unprecedented and deadly pandemic, a deep financial crisis, and a national climate of extremist rhetoric and unrest.

President Ryan and his team have made Herculean efforts to respond to those challenges. They have converted some 4,000 classes to virtual instruction in the spring semester; absorbed a loss of nearly $90 million in the hospital in March and April; brought 24,000 students and 20,000 employees back to Grounds with scrupulous attention to safety; and managed to reopen the University for in-person instruction. To date, these efforts look successful. They certainly excite our admiration.

The University of Virginia is a great institution. Despite the distractions of the moment, the University is performing extremely well, every day, in its core mission of educating young people. Passing controversies should not be allowed to displace our pride in the accomplishments of our students and graduates – accomplishments in academics, athletics, health, public service, and so many other endeavors.

Read the full statement here: BOV Statement in support of Ryan