Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Free speech on campus

A large stone building on the campus of Virginia Tech can be seen behind a few leafless trees, green grass small bushes planted in a circle.
Screen Capture
VPM News Focal Point
Is the right to freedom of speech guaranteed at institutions of higher learning?

Students at one university in Virginia share their views about free speech; learn why having a Bias Incident Response Team on campus could be problematic. 


A.J. NWOKO: With just over 30,000 students on its Blacksburg campus, there's likely no shortage of differing opinions at Virginia Tech University.

JACOB WILLIAMS: Like, it's definitely a wide range.

A.J. NWOKO: Opinions that sophomore Jacob Williams says he has no issues expressing.

JACOB WILLIAMS: Wanting to go into full-time ministry, there's a lot of things that I believe and I feel no hindrance in portraying that, and no hindrance in accepting what other people believe as well.

A.J. NWOKO: But for other students.

AJAX LAMBERT: And I can definitely see instances where I feel very tense.

A.J. NWOKO: Junior Ajax Lambert, a member of the LGBTQ community, says she takes a more guarded approach when expressing her thoughts.

AJAX LAMBERT: Being in a certain area where you're not sure if you're really accepted, then yeah, that can be stressful.

A.J. NWOKO: But Virginia Tech says it aims to support students through that stress while protecting their First Amendment freedoms. A method the university once used to achieve this is through the use of a Bias Incident Response Team, or BIRT, a way for the university to engage with students who believe themselves to be the recipients of bias and discrimination. But in recent years, Tech faced scrutiny from the nonprofit Speech First, an organization that claims to defend free speech, particularly on college campuses. In 2022 it sued Tech, arguing that under BIRT, the University could punish students with the threat of referrals for things said on or off campus. However, last year the courts found no evidence that Tech imposed or threatened to impose any discipline on anyone and that BIRT falls within the bounds of acceptable government speech. Though Tech says BIRT was recently retired, it is still committed to free speech, releasing a statement on its website saying that it "values the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment" and that it acknowledges that "the University community is responsible for respecting conditions that preserve the freedom to learn." Still for students like Joi Burgess.

JOI BURGESS: As a Black student at A PWI, I think it's super important to have a bias incident report.

A.J. NWOKO: The freshmen believe the University needs to take a more direct approach to addressing student concerns related to incidents of bias because similar methods are still being practiced in her learning community.

JOI BURGESS: If we have any concerns, we can report it to our director and she makes it known that we're allowed to say anything and everything. But I think that might differ if it's for university-wide.

NAHSHON ANTHONY: Yeah, I think as long as the opportunity is there, it's fine. It's not like an unnecessary thing. 'Cause you know, I mean more availability makes things a lot better.

A.J. NWOKO: Reporting in Blacksburg for VPM News, I'm A.J. Nwoko.


Related Articles
  1. Virginia school divisions navigate complexity of Confederate flag displays
  2. Is the solution to offensive speech more speech?
  3. One Small Step wants people to disagree agreeably
Related Stories