On March 10, 2003, the Board of Visitors of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) passed a resolution that threatened freedom of speech and assembly at that public institution. The Board banned specific viewpoints and required prior approval for all meetings on campus. On March 14, FIRE urged Virginia Tech to abandon the resolution, and called on Virginia’s attorney general to declare it unconstitutional. On March 19, the Office of the Attorney General ruled that Virginia Tech’s proposed policy on speech and assembly “violates the First Amendment.”
The Board of Visitors declared that no individuals or organizations could meet on university property “if it can be determined that such persons or organizations advocate or have participated in illegal acts of domestic violence and/or terrorism.” The resolution also required all individuals or groups planning to hold a meeting to seek “approval [from] the President of the university at least 30 days in advance.” It also gave the president of Virginia Tech “final decision-making power to determine who can meet on university property.” Fortunately, the resolution was “contingent upon a written ruling by the Attorney General of the Commonwealth” about its legality.
On March 14, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, Greg Lukianoff, wrote to the Board of Visitors and to the office of the Virginia attorney general, urging them to abandon this dangerously sweeping resolution. Citing relevant Supreme Court rulings, Lukianoff demonstrated the new policy’s unconstitutionality: “The remarkably overbroad and vague language of this resolution expands its reach far beyond campus guest speakers, to anyone, anywhere on campus.” He lamented “the number of unconstitutional ways that this resolution could be applied,” pointing in particular to its viewpoint discrimination and its impermissible “prior restraint.” Lukianoff further argued that so broad a regulation was a violation of the university’s moral mission and, indeed, “wholly contrary to the vital mission of America’s colleges and universities.” Decrying “a sweeping censorship that denies everyone’s rights in order to get at those few ideas that you find offensive,” he warned that “a university afraid of controversial ideas, thoughts, words, or people…is incapable of teaching its students how to live as citizens in a free and open society.” Lukianoff reminded the Board and the attorney general that “[A] great Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, perhaps said it best: ‘Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.’”
On March 19, State Solicitor William H. Hurd of the Office of the Attorney General advised Virginia Tech that “the new regulation violates fundamental rights to assembly and speech as protected by the First Amendment.” Citing Supreme Court precedent, the state solicitor pointed out that the resolution had a dangerously broad sweep and imposed “unconstitutional prior restraint.” The letter concluded: “A university—of all places—should be willing, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, ‘to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.’ For universities to prohibit the use of their facilities for constitutionally protected speech—based on the perceived illegitimacy or offensiveness of the viewpoint expressed—is contrary to the role of a university as a marketplace of ideas and violates the constitutional prohibition against viewpoint discrimination.”
“This is an important victory for freedom of speech,” said FIRE’s Lukianoff. “The attorney general’s office saw clearly the threat to liberty posed by a resolution that could censor the controversial, the radical, the reactionary, or the merely unpopular. They have urged Virginia Tech to recommit itself to its moral and legal obligation to uphold the Bill of Rights. We are confident that the Board of Visitors will abide by this decision.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Virginia Tech and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.