Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Wednesday to Virginia Commonwealth University administrators to inform them that their failure to protect the free speech rights of students and speakers at a recent pro-life event—and their failure to respond promptly when a violent mob showed up—violated the students and speakers’ constitutionally protected freedoms.
On March 29, Students for Life at VCU, a registered student organization, hosted an event on campus featuring guest speaker Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. A mob of students, many of whom were adorned with words or signs identifying themselves as “Antifa,” disrupted the event by blocking doors and continually shouting obscenities and slurs. Despite repeated calls to campus police, officers did not show up until nearly 30 minutes later, during which time the mob turned violent, destroying audiovisual equipment and shoving and assaulting numerous pro-life students. EMTs were called to the scene as multiple students sustained physical injuries.
“Most American universities say they value free speech, but actions speak louder than words. Virginia Commonwealth University recently had the opportunity to show it supports every student’s First Amendment right and utterly failed,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “Rather than ensure a safe and productive exchange of ideas, university officials allowed a vitriolic mob to take over and detained the pro-life speakers and students, instead of the violent disrupters. Public universities violate students’ constitutionally protected freedoms when they attempt to silence views they don’t want to hear. We urge VCU to swiftly rectify the damage that’s been done and prove they value freedom of speech.”
“Virginia Commonwealth University allowed a Heckler’s Veto to disrupt a peaceful pro-life presentation conversation planned by students at the school,” said SFLA President Kristan Hawkins, one of the invited guests. “Threats and violence ended the event, which is an injustice the school can begin to correct by inviting me back and properly protecting myself and the students who will gather, as we must ensure that students are safe on campuses. Free speech rights people are afraid to use, don’t really exist, and so we will defend our students as they stand up for mothers and their children, born and preborn.”
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In its letter, ADF explains that VCU failed in its constitutional duties to protect free speech in at least three ways:
1. VCU wholly failed to take “reasonable action” to protect the free speech rights of Students for Life-VCU and Students for Life of America by choosing not to provide any security for the expressive event. They chose to do nothing despite the student group specifically informing VCU that, although they intended for the event to be a peaceful discussion on abortion, they were concerned about the potential for disruption.
2. Having decided to take no action to protect the speakers or students at the pro-life event, VCU police compounded the university’s failure by taking 27 minutes to respond to calls they received concerning an ongoing, violent disturbance on campus. During this delayed response, personal injuries and property damage occurred.
3. When police finally did arrive, they failed to take any action to quell the disruption and protect the pro-life students and staff who were being assaulted and whose rights were violated. Rather, as the letter explains, they sat “idly on the sidelines—watching as the crowd impose[d], through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule.” The officers refused to do their duty to enforce Virginia law or university policy. Further, instead of arresting the perpetrators, they detained the pro-life students, who organized the event, in a separate locked room for nearly two hours while permitting the violent activists to continue their disruptions as they saw fit. Police also asked Hawkins, the guest speaker, to leave the event, which she refused to do.
The ADF letter requests that VCU administrators invite the March 29 speakers back to campus to give their presentation before the end of the semester, provide adequate security for the event, pay for all losses and damage sustained to property and students, and affirm VCU’s unwavering commitment to freedom of speech with a written statement of principles, among other things, in order to avoid potential legal action.