Update on the University's Statement on Free Expression

Feb. 1, 2021

Dear Members of the University Community:

I am pleased to share with you the University of Richmond’s Statement on Free Expression, which is now available on the University website. The final Statement, which was endorsed by the Board of Trustees following the University community’s review and discussion of it last fall, includes several substantive modifications that align with community feedback. You can review the specific changes made to the Statement on our free expression website.

In the aftermath of the violent and shocking assault on Capitol Hill, our collective work to educate our students and foster a community skilled in civic dialogue and disagreement has never been more urgent. Lies and incitements to violence have no place in our public discourse and must be unequivocally condemned.

The Statement on Free Expression invites us to leverage our campus as a laboratory of democracy where students learn to understand and value evidence, to respect the backgrounds and perspectives that lead to different points of view, and to participate fully as active citizens in a diverse and complex world. Our commitment to free expression and open inquiry is vital to cultivating the type of vibrant, intellectual environment needed to combat forces of hatred, division, and anti-intellectualism, all of which shut down dialogue and creative thought and so perniciously threaten our democratic institutions.

CONTINUING OUR DIALOGUE

As we worked to finalize the Statement last semester, we grappled with several issues raised by the campus community that cannot be adequately addressed in the Statement itself but nonetheless merit further discussion. I offer here my perspective on three such issues that I believe we will continue to encounter as a community.

Hateful Speech

Some community feedback posed poignant questions about whether speech viewed as hateful can be limited or even prohibited on campus, as well as if and how we determine what constitutes hateful speech and potential limits on it. These are difficult questions, especially in light of constitutional protections for hate speech. Ultimately, I do not believe it is feasible or appropriate to codify what constitutes acceptable or prohibited speech on college campuses. We should, however, demonstrate clearly and consistently — in both our expression and via counter-speech when necessary — that hate has no place at UR. We must work every day to foster an inclusive campus culture in which we demonstrate commitment to our shared values and one another as we learn and work together.

Who Speaks on Campus

With few exceptions, faculty, staff, and students decide who is invited to speak on campus. Each group can open platforms — through classes, organizations, events, and other activities — to expression of all kinds, and has the freedom to invite and engage with speakers, both internal and external, on ideas of substance and intellectual merit. Campus community members will continue to make these determinations about speakers, some of whom may spark debate or even counter-speech and protest. When deciding who is invited to speak on our campus, we must acknowledge that extending invitations comes with responsibility; expression can teach, but it can also hurt, and the potential benefits and harms of expression should always be considered in our decision-making.

Expression and Community Aspirations

The Statement asserts that the University should advance free expression for all community members. I agree with this assertion while acknowledging it is, as yet, aspirational. Both historically at UR and today, not every member of our community has felt equally free to speak and express themselves on campus. We all have a role to play in cultivating the kind of educational environment that invites debate on a wide range of issues, while also recognizing that engaging productively with one another requires us to build individual capacity for dialogue with those who do not think or believe as we do. Indeed, doing so is critical to our educational mission and our work to create a thriving, inclusive intercultural community.

AN INVITATION

As I have often said, I view our University Statement on Free Expression as an invitation rather than a declaration, and a starting point rather than a conclusion. The Statement is intended to invite you to have ongoing conversations about our values and aspirations with respect to free expression. It is a living document that can be enlivened by each of us and may change over time. I fully expect the Statement will be visited and revisited as we strive to fulfill our University’s mission of preparing “students for lives of purpose, thoughtful inquiry, and responsible leadership in a diverse world.”

Thank you for all the ways you have contributed to our community dialogue on free expression and the creation of this Statement.

Sincerely,

Ronald A. Crutcher
President