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UVa: Expletives on Lawn door signs is protected free speech

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Lawn door sign

The wording on a sign on a University of Virginia Lawn room door during fall semester started with a four-letter expletive at the top (not seen) and is followed by a list of grievances: “UVa operating cost, KKKops, genocide, slavery, disability, black-brown life.”

A four-letter imperative, posted to a Lawn residence door with the University of Virginia as its direct object, has riled alumni and created a social media debate that led the university’s president, rector and general counsel to defend the profane door as protected political speech.

The expletive features a common English curse word followed by a list of grievances: “UVa operating cost, KKKops, genocide, slavery, disability, black-brown life.”

Several more similar signs on Lawn doors have followed.

The administration’s decision to leave the signs alone, along with recent decisions to remove some statues and put into context UVa founder Thomas Jefferson’s slave ownership, has upset many university supporters, both alumni and in the community.

Several have accused the university and administrators of being afraid to challenge the students or liberal ideals.

On Friday, UVa President Jim Ryan wrote a letter to the community saying that, while the signs are profane and offensive, they are protected by law.

“Some have suggested that this episode is about courage or cowardice or about politics and ideology. I respectfully disagree. I believe it is a matter of principle and the obligation, especially of universities, to protect speech even when it is offensive, and to stand firm against pressure to ignore the Constitution,” Ryan wrote.

Ryan noted that a Sept. 29 letter from UVa General Counsel Timothy J. Heaphy ruled the signs are protected political speech. Heaphy’s letter included citations of U.S. Supreme Court rulings from the Vietnam War era that have created legal precedents in free speech law.

One case, from 1971, involved the same expletive. It was ruled that, while offensive, it was part of protected political speech.

“Observing that one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric, the court said that the slogan at issue was not within some narrower category of unprotected speech, such as true threats, pornographic obscenity, or incitement,” Heaphy wrote.

“The court rejected the argument that other people in the courthouse were subjected to this speech involuntarily, reasoning that a courthouse is a public space, and anyone offended could effectively avoid further bombardment of their sensibilities simply by averting their eyes,” he said.

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Several alumni were interested in taking down the signs but said in social media posts that they were thwarted by security ambassadors placed by the school to protect the speech.

A post on the Twitter page of UVa alumnus Brit Hume, a political commentator and analyst on Fox News, resulted in numerous posts from those who were opposed to the signage.

Others wrote to administrators to protest their inaction.

“I am not sure you fully appreciate the intensity of the feelings that many of us alumni share,” wrote alumnus Aubrey M. Daniel III, in a letter to Ryan earlier this week. “The Lawn is a place of honor to which [the student] brought dishonor. The university historically has been a place of honor which she has dishonored.”

Daniel, who successfully prosecuted U.S. Army Lt. William L. Calley Jr. for the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, had his letter reprinted in the Virginia politics blog Bacon’s Rebellion.

Daniel noted in his letter that Monticello and the UVa Academical Village are listed by the United Nations as world heritage sites. He said the doors on the Lawn are part of that site and were not designed to be “ugly billboards.”

“It is a ridiculous proposition to suggest that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the university from maintaining and protecting the architectural beauty and harmony of the buildings on the Lawn,” he wrote.

Daniel said the writing on the door does not rise to the university’s standards of discourse that “free exchange of ideas must be civil, respectful, courteous, and orderly.”

“What is the response to ‘FUVa’? Is it ‘don’t fUVa’? This is hardly the type of debate for intellectual discourse at a major university whose role is to educate and foster personal development and character,” Daniel wrote. “Isn’t the imperfect pursuit of high ideals made more difficult if the standards of conduct used to get there are not enforced?”

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Ryan wrote that he did not condone the wording of the message, but that he would protect the right to say it.

“The signs evoke a clash of values. On the one side stand the values of reasoned debate, civility and respect for the role of the Lawn in the life of the university and as a place visited by many, including young children,” Ryan wrote.

“On the other side stands our firm and enduring commitment to the freedom of speech and the tolerance of protest and dissent, which is at the heart of any university, including ours. This is also a constitutionally protected right, which we are bound as a public university to respect,” he wrote.

Ryan said he was disappointed in the signage because it ignores recent efforts toward social change.

“Personally, I find the signs deeply disappointing, not simply because of their language and location, but because they fail to acknowledge any of the progress that this university has made to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive,” Ryan wrote.

In his opinion letter, Heaphy said the signs do not meet standards for defacement, defamation or obscenity. The inclusion of the invective does not change the fact that it was used in a political statement, qualifying for protected speech.

He said the only way to ban such signs would be to ban all posters and signs on the basis of health and safety with respect to fire protection and preventing conflict. He said any immediate effort to pass such a ban could result in courts overturning it.

“Even if we did enact a policy that bans posters on the Lawn, I do not believe the policy applied to this particular sign would pass constitutional muster,” he said. “A reviewing court would look to the motive for the policy and likely conclude that this particular offensive sign was at least one substantial reason for the new policy.”

Ryan wrote that a ban on all signs on the Lawn is something that would be considered prior to the next academic year.

“We can and will consider whether additional regulations are needed for the Lawn,” he said. “Time, place and manner restrictions would be legally permissible if they are narrowly tailored to protecting that environment, apply neutrally to all opinions and points of view and pre-exist any particular controversy.”

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UVa Rector James Murray on Tuesday penned a statement on behalf of the Board of Visitors that supports Ryan. Murray called the door signs “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,” Murray wrote.

He said that the speech is clearly political, however, and therefore protected.

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

The university also has been criticized by alumni and community members for its September decision to support a Racial Equity Task Force report recommending a variety of changes to the school to make it “open and welcoming to all.” Among the changes proving controversial is one to put Jefferson’s life in context at his statue on Grounds.

“This statue, particularly in the last few years, has become a touchstone for concerns about the university’s complex history with regard to race. Some members of our community have called for the removal of the statue. This idea gained greater urgency in light of the recent protests across the country this summer,” Ryan wrote. “I do not believe the statue should be removed, nor would I ever approve such an effort. As long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson.”

Ryan said adding context to the statue means providing historical facts to help understand Jefferson and the statue’s reference to his writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

“It will not make judgments, but relay historical truths about his remarkable life, an effort consistent with our purpose as a university, to educate and pursue the truth,” Ryan wrote.

Murray said the Board of Visitors supports Ryan and other top administrators and complimented their efforts at dealing with a pandemic, converting classes to online, dealing with monetary losses due to COVID-19 and developing safety guidelines for bringing students back to Grounds all in “a national climate of extremist rhetoric and unrest.”

Murray also credited concerned alumni for their dedication to the university.

“The board will do all we can to honor these successes and make sure they continue, while we work with President Ryan and his administration to address the immediate challenges of keeping everyone healthy and school open,” Murray wrote.

“We see no greater evidence of the strength of our university than in the passionate, committed and heartfelt expressions of support from students, alumni/ae, faculty and friends when they perceive us under threat,” he wrote. “We appreciate and applaud your devotion.”


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Related to this story

From University of Virginia Lawn doors, signage condemns UVa with the use of expletives. I strongly disagree with this sentiment. I do support the students’ rights to expression, if it were to be applied uniformly. 

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