The University of Virginia (UVA) has garnered it first challenge against its new policy surrounding “expressive activities” on it campus by outside groups after Bruce Kothmann, a UVA alumnus, read aloud from his Bible at the Rotunda. A police officer approached Kothmann as he read from Isaiah 40, and told the UVA alum that such activity was no longer allowed at the public university.
In a report from The Washington Post, the man came to campus just after his daughter finished her sophomore year. Kothmann, armed with his black leather bound Bible, traveled from his home in Philadelphia to challenge the new policy to limit speech.
Even if he had sought permission in advance, as the policy states, the Rotunda is not one of the places the university has designated for public speech by outsiders.
“To say a single alumnus or group of alumni cannot gather anywhere on the grounds of the university to speak,” Kothmann said, “that seems like an overreaction to ensure a safe environment for students…I want the school to keep being a school that says free speech is important – especially a university founded by Thomas Jefferson.”
Freedom of speech has recently loomed as an aggressive issue at college campuses across the country. UVA is a special case – where several hundred white supremacists clashed with members of Antifa in August on the school’s Lawn and at the Rotunda. It was the beginning of a weekend of violence in Charlottesville that turned deadly and sent shock waves across the world and made many question the merits of the First Amendment in modern society.
Kothmann, a 1989 graduate of UVA, current teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. He was concerned after becoming aware of his alma mater’s new rules, created in the months following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
UVA President Teresa Sullivan wrote to the campus community last week about the implementation of the rules that many say have the underpinnings of the suppression of free speech. “The University of Virginia is committed to the constitutional principle of free speech and to the safety and security of every member of this community,” she wrote. “The university has issued a revised policy regarding the time, place, and manner of expressive activity by unaffiliated persons meeting outdoors.”
The term “unaffiliated” also applies to university alumni. Moreover, the policy dictates that people must make reservation at least one week in advance before they wish to speak publicly on campus or handout information, restricts groups to 25 or 50 people, permits only two hours of speech, and designates nine areas on campus where such events are allowed.
The Rotunda at the center of the university, where Kothmann was read his Bible aloud, was not one of those places. He argued that the nine designated sites would not be the most effective places to spread a message, considering they are located in the lesser-traveled areas of the grounds of UVA. Even with unwelcomed speech, Kothmann said, “You answer speech with speech…That’s the antidote to damaging speech.”
As part of a large Jewish family, Kothmann said his family was frightened by the torchlight march with members of white supremacy factions chanting: “Jews will not replace us!” Both him and his daughter, Julia Kothmann, were sent pictures of the August 11 rally while they were vacationing at the beach – shocking both of them.
Julia said she thought of Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were pillaged in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in 1938, and she thought of the Ku Klux Klan. “It was terrifying, disgusting, revolting,” she said.
Kothmann says he understands the aim of UVA’s policy. He says the university has the right to put some restrictions on the time, place, and manner in which people speak.
“At some point, a group of people assembled to speak is a mob.” However, he said, “I don’t think this is the right policy to make that distinction.”
Some argue that the there is a supposed “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. Some say, “This isn’t free speech, it’s hate speech.” Some question, “When does free speech stop and hate speech begin?”
Contrary to what many progressives claim and what is seen on mainstream media, there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. Hateful prose, as ambiguous as the term may seem, is protected under the First Amendment.
People are free to excoriate and condemn Muslims, Christians, those of Jewish faith, or African-Americans, Caucasians, or illegal aliens, or natural-born citizens – as people commonly criticize Democrats or Republicans, or KFC or Popeye’s fried chicken.
One can argue, as many do, that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution should be changed to make room for a ban on hate speech, which would include obscenities, much like those shouted during the August rally. However, no term exists, as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in his opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) – “I know it when i see it…,” in reference to obscenities via the “Roth Test” that determines if speech is unprotected, which is deemed “patently offensive” and “utterly without redeeming social value.”
The opinion from Justice Stewart, even thought it came from the highest court in the land, is objective, without clear legal concreteness.
Nevertheless, no exception to the First Amendment should be recognized anyways.
A few days after the carnage in Charlottesville ended, thousands of people filled UVA’s Lawn for a candlelight vigil for the three victims of the fatal violence of the rally and the notion that a small Central Virginia town was changed forever. People came from far and wide to spread messages of love, hope, and solidarity in a time that seemed not to represent society in 2017.
They sent a message of love to reclaim the space. This is precisely the antidote to hateful speech – loving speech.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.