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A Jeffersonian reform
U.Va. moves to protect free speech

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Date published: 1/3/2011

THOMAS JEFFERSON would be proud: His University of Vir- ginia has become one of a minority of colleges and universities in this country to decide that free speech does indeed trump political correctness.

Allen Groves, dean of students at the Charlottesville school, has led the effort to kill off some university policies that restricted some speech. For example, the "Just Report It!" program, which has allowed students to inform about "bias" discerned in others, has been changed: Protected speech won't be "subject to university disciplinary action or formal investigation" even if reported, the policy now reads.

In other changes, a prohibition on Internet messages that "vilify" others and mailing lists some might consider "inappropriate" has been removed from the school's IT policies. And the Women's Center has lightened up on what it defines as "sexual harassment," removing references to "jokes of a sexual nature," "teasing," "innuendo," and even flirting if it "was not wanted and mutual" or if a person felt "disrespected."

The restrictive policies at U.Va. were brought to the attention of the school by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization founded to protect and sustain liberties such as free speech, right of conscience, legal equity, due process, and freedom of religion for individuals on college campuses. In its annual report, FIRE notes that 67 percent of the 390 colleges and universities it surveyed have at least one policy that "clearly and substantially" restricts freedom of speech. This is better than the 79 percent of schools that received a "red light" designation three years ago, but still is unacceptably high. U.Va. now joins the 3 percent of schools that get an unadulterated "green light" from FIRE. Of course, when any public university fails to get a green light, it's probably doing something unconstitutional (private colleges have more leeway in curbing expression).

Universities are supposed to be places where thinking and exploring ideas and facts are the main goals, the natural result of which is expression. Rules and regulations will never generate true respect for others; all they do is tamp down speech--exactly what the First Amendment is supposed to protect. Good for U.Va. for seeing through the fog and protecting First Amendment freedoms.