Colleges grappling with balancing free speech, campus safety

  • Aug. 21, 2017 6:30 a.m.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — When Carl Valentine dropped off his daughter at the University of Virginia, he had some important advice for the college freshman: Don’t forget that you are a minority.

“She has to be vigilant of that and be concerned about that, always know her surroundings, just be cautious, just be extremely cautious,” said Valentine, 57, who is African-American. A retired military officer, he now works at the Defence Department.

As classes begin at colleges and universities across the country, some parents are questioning if their children will be safe on campus in the wake of last weekend’s violent white nationalist protest here. School administrators, meanwhile, are grappling with how to balance students’ physical safety with free speech.

Friday was move-in day at the University of Virginia, and students and their parents unloaded cars and carried suitcases, blankets, lamps, fans and other belongings into freshmen dormitories. Student volunteers, wearing orange university T-shirts, distributed water bottles and led freshmen on short tours of the university grounds.

But along with the usual moving-in scene, there were signs of the tragic events of last weekend, when white nationalists staged a nighttime march through campus holding torches and shouting racist slogans. Things got worse the following day, when a man said to harbour admiration for Nazis drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 others.

Flags flew at half-staff outside the university’s Rotunda, and a nearby statue of founder Thomas Jefferson was stained with wax from a candlelight vigil by thousands of students and city residents in a bid to unite and heal. Some student dormitories had signs on doors reading, “No Home for Hate Here.”

In an address to students and families on Friday, UVA President Teresa Sullivan welcomed “every person of every race, every gender, every national origin, every religious belief, every orientation and every other human variation.” Afterward, parents asked university administrators tough questions about the gun policy on campus, white supremacists and the likelihood of similar violence in the future.

For Valentine, of Yorktown, Virginia, the unrest brought back painful memories of when, as a young boy, he couldn’t enter government buildings or movie theatres through the front door because of racial discrimination. “We’ve come a long way, but still a long way to go for equality,” he said.

His daughter Malia Valentine, an 18-year-old pre-med student, is more optimistic.

“It was scary what happened, but I think that we as a community will stand together in unity and we’ll be fine,” she said.

Christopher Dodd, 18, said he was shocked by the violence and initially wondered if it would be safe at UVA.

“Wow, I am going to be in this place, it looks like a war zone,” Dodd, a cheerful redhead, remembered thinking. “But I do think that we are going to be all right, there is nothing they can do to intimidate us. I am not going to let them control my time here.”

Others feel less confident.

Weston Gobar, president of the Black Student Alliance at UVA, says he’ll warn incoming black students not to take their safety for granted. “The message is to work through it and to recognize that the world isn’t safe, that white supremacy is real, that we have to find ways to deal with that,” he said.

Terry Hartle, senior vice-president of the American Council on Education, said colleges are reassessing their safety procedures. “The possibility of violence will now be seen as much more real than it was a week ago and every institution has to be much more careful.”

Such work is already under way at UVA.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Sullivan said the university will be revamping its emergency protocols, increasing the number of security officers patrolling the grounds and hiring an outside safety consultant.

“This isn’t a matter where we are going to spare expense,” Sullivan said.

Hartle said some universities may end up making the uneasy decision to limit protests and rallies on campus and not to invite controversial speakers if they are likely to create protests. “There is an overarching priority to protect the physical safety of students and the campus community,” he said.

Student body presidents from over 120 schools in 34 states and Washington, D.C., signed a statement denouncing the Charlottesville violence and saying college campuses should be safe spaces free of violence and hate.

Jordan Jomsky, a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, said his parents had advice he plans to follow: “They told me to stay safe, and don’t go to protests.”

“I wish people would just leave this place alone. It’s become this epicenter. We’re just here to study,” said Jomsky, an 18-year-old from a Los Angeles suburb.

The school has become a target of far-right speakers and nationalist groups because of its reputation as a liberal bastion. In September, former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro is scheduled to speak on campus. Right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos has vowed to return for a “Free Speech Week” in response to violent protests that shut down his planned appearance last February.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ told incoming freshmen last week that Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in the 1960s was a product of liberals and conservatives working together to win the right to hold political protests on campus.

“Particularly now, it is critical for the Berkeley community to protect this right; it is who we are,” Christ said. “That protection involves not just defending your right to speak, or the right of those you agree with, but also defending the right to speak by those you disagree with. Even of those whose views you find abhorrent.”

“We respond to hate speech with more speech,” Christ said to loud applause.

At the same time, though, she said, there’s also an obligation to keep the campus safe. “We now know we have to have a far higher number of police officers ready,” she said.

Concerns for safety are compounded for international students, many of whom have spent months reading headlines about the tense U.S. political situation and arrived wondering if their accents or the colour of their skin will make them targets.

“It was scary taking the risk of coming here,” said Turkish international student Naz Dundar.

Dundar, 18, who considered going to university in Canada but felt relief after attending orientation at Berkeley. “So far, no one hated me for being not American.”

She plans to stay away from protests. “Especially as a person of another race — I don’t want to get stoned,” she said.

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