By all accounts, Mike Pence gave a spirited talk this week at the University of Virginia. He elicited cheers and a little protest. In these days of polarization, the peaceful appearance of a national, partisan figure on a college campus counts as a “win” for free speech.
At another university, this high-profile event might not have happened. When news broke that Pence had been invited to speak to a conservative student group, student Elisabeth Bass of The Cavalier demanded the former vice president be banned from campus as a threat to LGBTQ students. An editorial board piece for that student newspaper likened Pence’s promise to “take a stand for America’s founding” to the white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville in 2017.
The university administration held firm and rightly allowed the event to go forward. Not incidentally, their decision protected the rights of students to dissent and protest Pence as well. It is UVA’s principled stand for free speech that prompted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to give the university a “green light” rating. FIRE’s rating puts the university near the top of schools that notably respect free speech.
Not every university is as firm as UVA. Administrators at other institutions often waver, allowing the silencing of speakers left, right and center.
Despite Pence’s successful appearance, institutions founded on a love of discovery and discourse are still in danger of becoming silos of censorship and shaming. What’s lost is the opportunity for all sides to learn from each other. Let’s hope more students and faculty realize the surefire way to lose a debate is to ban one.