Hearing Mike Pence Speak Won’t Harm UVA Students

Mike Pence (ex-Vice President) is to take part in the SpeakInvitation by University of Virginia to the University of Virginia, April 12 ChapterYoung Americans for Freedom. Normaly, an ex-government official would address interested students at a college. But, the editorial board at It Cavalier Daily—the student-run paper at UVA—has declared Pence’s event to be a crisis. The board has published this week’s report. EditorialPence’s presence at UVA will “threaten students’ lives”, they argue, calling it “bigotry” that “threatens the safety and well-being of Grounds students.” Not only do they call on the university to not “platform” Pence due to his political beliefs—something that would be explicitly illegal because UVA is a public university—they also argue that those beliefs constitute a physical threat to the safety of UVA students.

It is disappointing to me that an aspiring journalist group would attack free speech as a former opinion writer at the paper, and as a UVA student.

It is too easy to dismiss the editorial as simply the rumblings of college students, who often write unreasonable things and have outlandish opinions. It is not my opinion that current thoughts of classmates should be followed after graduation. Nor should they face an online pile on because of it.

They are important to me, however. The latest example of a worrying trend is labeling some types of political speech dangerous even if they don’t provoke violence. It is a tedious strategy that also hinders us from making meaningful comments about political problems.

Our editorial board stated that “For us the answer is straightforward.” Hateful rhetoric is violent — and this is impermissible.” They claim that UVA is not a place for rhetoric that threatens members of the community. The LGBTQ+ individuals Pence has attacked, the Black lives he refuses to value and the successful stories of immigration he and the former president hope to prevent…”

You can criticize ideas of others without saying that they are physically threatening the listeners. We should reserve the label of “violence” for physical bodily harm—anything else deliberately muddles the word’s meaning and prevents us from speaking clearly about actual persecution.

A threat to human lives is different from emotional discomfort. Take Brunei’s state-sponsored persecution against LGBT citizens. In Brunei gay sex was made a criminal offense and was punished with stoning. This law is one that “threatens”. It literally “endangers” the lives of LGBT Bruneians. We obfuscate the real danger that LGBT Americans face when we describe the appearance of homophobic speakers on American college campuses as “life-threatening”. While these two scenarios are not identical in law or effect, the new norm that is supported by It Cavalier DailyThey are treated as one and the same. 

Defining “violence” to encompass actions that emphatically aren’t violent is not restricted to  college newspapers. From a New York TimesTo add a column leading journalistThe idea that offensive or hurtful speech is violent action is growing in popularity, making it more difficult for people to distinguish reality from exaggeration.

Recent research has shown that Editorial, The New York TimesEditorial board said that freedom of speech calls for greater engagement with opinions we do not like, and for greater self-control when confronted by words that can challenge or upset us. Similar concerns were voiced by me in my opinion essayThis article was published in April.

To make the meaning of the words we use, we have to resist the temptation to equate nonviolent speech with violence. Although hyperbole may be a noble way to attack another person’s view, it can also cloud discussion. It doesn’t make it easier for you to discredit ideas or beliefs that are violent. But, labeling them as such shows your refusal to participate in debate. It Cavalier DailyPence can be criticized for his political views without being a danger to UVA students. Although it is more work, it can be a worthwhile effort if the paper wants to influence their readers.