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Campus Free Speech in Virginia

Photo showing the University of Richmond’s campus in the fall.
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VPM News Focal Point
The University of Richmond is one of two Virginia universities that have joined a coalition of universities aimed at protecting free speech.

Controversial speakers are meeting with increasingly fierce protests on campus. Two Virginia schools are banding together to search for efforts to ensure free speech on campus.  

TRANSCRIPT OF VIDEO

BILLY SHIELDS: On April 26th, at James Madison University's campus in Harrisonburg, Virginia, controversial speaker Liz Wheeler came to give a speech. It was a time one graduating senior described as crazy.

KEN KENSKY: It was really scary for a lot of people. Many of my friends were scared because a lot of what Liz Wheeler talks about is very anti-transgender, and many consider it to be hate speech, and they were worried about what type of people it might bring to campus.

BILLY SHIELDS: And as anger built on campus in the weeks leading up to Wheeler's talk, the question progressive students like Ken Kensky had to consider was what to do about it.

KEN KENSKY: There was a lot of discussion about, how far do we go in our protest? There were some people who were saying that we should go attend her event. We should disrupt it because we disagree with her ideas. And there were other people that were saying, "No, she has a right to speak. We should ignore her, have our own event."

BILLY SHIELDS: Parker Boggs is a senior at JMU now, and is the campus chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative group that sponsored Wheeler's talk.

PARKER BOGGS: When I think of people when they say, "Oh, it was a transphobic speech, it was hate speech." Liz blatantly said before she did a TV interview saying that she doesn't hate people who are transgender or who identify as transgender. She wants to just know, she wants 'em to know what's happening and wants 'em to know about the transgender ideology. That's what she was going at, and that was her main point of this.

BILLY SHIELDS: It is a controversy playing out on campuses in other parts of the state and nationwide. Should controversial speakers be allowed to share what some consider hurtful or even hateful views on campus, and should protestors be allowed to shout them down?

RONALD CRUTCHER: Shouting the speaker down is not an option.

BILLY SHIELDS: It's something Ronald Crutcher had to deal with when he was president of the University of Richmond.

RONALD CRUTCHER: What I felt we needed to do at the university was to help our students understand why it was important to hear perspectives that you might not necessarily agree with.

BILLY SHIELDS: Recently, JMU and UR joined a 13-university initiative funded by the Knight Foundation aimed at preserving free speech on campus.

RONALD CRUTCHER: We had a transphobic speaker on our campus, and people wanted me to disinvite him, and I didn't do that. But yet, on the day that he spoke, students came. They dressed in white to protest, they carried signs, but he was able to give his presentation.

BILLY SHIELDS: Back at JMU, Kensky ultimately demonstrated outside Wheeler's talk.

KEN KENSKY: My personal belief on the matter was, I don't want her to be here, but she is allowed to be here.

BILLY SHIELDS: Which went on as planned.

LIZ WHEELER: Has it been approved?

BILLY SHIELDS: But did get heated at times.

PARKER BOGGS: There have to be a plethora of views on campus no matter what.

BILLY SHIELDS: In Crutcher's mind, university administrators should think carefully about whom they bring in.

RONALD CRUTCHER: There has to be an intellectual rationale for that invitation.

BILLY SHIELDS: It remains a controversial part of university life. Neither JMU nor UR's current administration would comment for this piece.

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Billy Shields is a multimedia journalist with VPM News Focal Point.
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