The following message was sent from the Vice President for Student Affairs to the student body on Oct. 27, 2023 – Ed.
The past two weeks have strained our world and given rise to a divisiveness on campuses across this country that we have not seen in many years. As often happens in times of intense geopolitical conflict, voices have been raised, people have taken sides, and we are, at times, acting outside of our community’s values. What does it mean for us now to embrace respect, curiosity, and belonging? There is nothing easy about navigating a time like this.
Last week I sent you a message outlining ways to Practice Civil Discourse and the resources W&M offers to help our community engage across difference. Today I want to address some of the questions we are hearing, to set expectations about the university’s ability to restrict speech, and to talk about what W&M can and cannot do as we move forward as a community.
In these recent weeks, the university has been asked repeatedly to step in to control, extinguish, and/or moderate the speech of members of our campus community. Concerns have been raised about language others are using, written expressions on signs, online posts, slogans on t-shirts, and verbal speech at tabling events, vigils, and sit-ins.
We hear those concerns, and the university cannot silence people who are legally exercising their right to free expression. To do so would both violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and betray our university’s core values and mission. Once one person’s right to speak is eroded, the right to speak is weakened for us all. We each risk losing our voice – a profound undermining of the most basic principle of democratic society. Know that, in most instances, the university is not in a position to punish or prevent speech.
It is also true that hateful speech, and language that blames or injures with rhetoric, violates W&M’s values of belonging and respect. Our learning community denounces such speech, speech that serves no purpose other than to create dissension and promote fear. Information about distinguishing between protected and unprotected speech is outlined below, along with options for responding to protected speech that you find offensive.
Let’s first define what is and is not protected speech.
The First Amendment of the Constitution states that Congress shall make no law that abridges the freedom of speech. This has been interpreted to mean that all but the most egregious speech is protected by law. In addition, Virginia law (Va. Code Sec. 23.1-401.1) states that no public institution of higher education may abridge the constitutional freedom of any individual to speak on campus.
What is considered speech under the First Amendment?
Most written and verbal communication is “speech.” Verbal statements, written slogans on posters and shirts, online writing, and even lyrics in music are considered speech.
What speech is not protected under the First Amendment?
There are a few limited exceptions to our constitutional Free Speech protections:
- Harassment: Speech that creates both a severe and pervasive hostile environment and is also objectively offensive to the average William & Mary student would be deemed illegal harassment and not protected. This is a very high legal threshold.
- True Threats: Speech that would cause the listener to believe that an immediate act of violence is about to occur against identifiable persons. Words alone are not enough. The speaker must intend for the listener to believe violence will occur. This is also a very high threshold.
- Fighting Words: In-person (not on social media) speech which would make the average William & Mary student feel propelled to violence simply by hearing it. It is not enough to find language disturbing. No court has ever found this exception to be applicable, mostly because we all have self-determination, a choice, and an opportunity to walk away and exercise self-control.
- Defamation: Speech about a specific individual that is both untrue and causes injury to reputation.
What about hate speech?
Hateful speech, even speech that is focused on hurtful, pejorative, racialized themes, or which invokes stereotypes and tropes is still protected speech unless it meets the criteria outlined above. Without a doubt, hateful speech often pains and harms others. It can be scary and deeply upsetting. By definition, it is antithetical to our mission and values – and yet it is constitutionally protected speech.
When does protected speech cross the line into something actionable?
The university has established content-neutral restrictions on the time, place and manner where speech can occur. For example, speech that disrupts class schedules or the operation of campus events and activities is prohibited. In addition, speech outside of buildings is treated differently than such speech inside buildings.
Details on applicable restrictions can be found in the following policies: Use of Campus Facilities for Non-University Purposes and Posting/Chalking Policy. Likewise, speech directed toward particular individuals, especially speech attempting to compel certain outcomes, can quickly escalate from an expressive activity into an interpersonal conflict. Speech that includes conduct which violates university policies will be addressed accordingly.
What can we do?
In times of uncertainty and conflict, we can feel helpless, silenced, and powerless. Yet, alone and together, there are many things we can do to respond to protected speech that we find hateful or offensive.
Report: If you feel you have experienced or witnessed illegal harassment or threats, please report this to firstname.lastname@example.org. You matter. The university will respond vigorously to conduct and policy violations – investigating them swiftly in a way that ensures due process.
Respond: Use your voice!The best way to combat speech is with speech. Good, civil, educated, passionate, factual speech. Meet bad facts with better ones, meet silence with sound, meet ignorance with education, meet positionality with dialogue. Find ways to confront ideas, not the speakers themselves. When you hear bias, name what you hear, in a way that others can also hear: say, “I find that phrase X, and here’s why.”
As mentioned in my most recent email, there are offices across campus that can help you reserve spaces for speech, hone your speech skills, and offer you many opportunities to learn how to become more effectively engaged:
- Civic & Community Engagement
- Student Unions & Engagement
- Student Leadership Development
- W&M Democracy Initiative
- Self-Governance in Residence Halls
- Dean of Students Office
Recover: Most importantly, experiencing hateful speech can be deeply painful. If you are hurting or feeling injured or alone, we have many campus resources to help.We care about you.
- Counseling Center – when one-to-one or group therapy is needed
- Timely Care – online 24/7 counseling support
- Campus Recreation – take out a canoe, do a fitness class, move your body
Looking to the future:
William & Mary has played a pivotal role in the shaping of democracy since the founding of the United States. We have and will continue to lead essential efforts to practice and promote democratic ideals in the pursuit of a more perfect union. We will rely on our community, our history, and our laws to guide us through.
Even as our world is deeply divided, we have the opportunity to rediscover the ideals that make pluralistic democracies strong. I have faith we will do just that – together.
Virginia M. Ambler ’88, Ph.D. ‘06
Vice President for Student Affairs
William & Mary