Read­ing his Bible on the Ro­tunda, U-Va. alum­nus con­tests new speech pol­icy

Push­back fo­cuses on rules im­ple­mented af­ter Char­lottesville un­rest

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY SUSAN SVRLUGA susan.svrluga@wash­post.com

When a Univer­sity of Vir­ginia alum­nus read aloud from his Bible on the steps of the school’s Ro­tunda last week, univer­sity po­lice came to si­lence him.

A po­lice of­fi­cer ap­proached Bruce Koth­mann as he read from Isa­iah 40, to ex­plain that such ac­tiv­ity is no longer al­lowed at the pub­lic univer­sity. Even if he had sought per­mis­sion in ad­vance, the Ro­tunda is not one of the places the univer­sity has des­ig­nated for pub­lic speech by out­siders. Koth­mann had come to cam­pus be­cause his daugh­ter had just fin­ished her sopho­more year. He took his Bible with him to chal­lenge the school’s new pol­icy lim­it­ing speech by out­siders on cam­pus.

“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 is­sue at cam­puses across the coun­try. But it is es­pe­cially fraught at U-Va., where sev­eral hun­dred white su­prem­a­cists and white na­tion­al­ists marched in Au­gust across the school’s Lawn and at the Ro­tunda with torches and chanted “Jews will not re­place us!” It was the be­gin­ning of a week­end of vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville that turned deadly and sent shock waves across the world.

It shocked Koth­mann, a 1989 grad­u­ate of U-Va. who teaches at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s School of Engi­neer­ing and Ap­plied Science. He was at the beach with his daugh­ter Aug. 11 when she be­gan get­ting photos on her phone sent by friends.

Ju­lia Koth­mann 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.

But when Bruce Koth­mann read U-Va.’s new rules, crafted in the months af­ter the white­supremacist rally, he was con­cerned.

Teresa Sullivan, the univer­sity’s pres­i­dent, wrote to the cam­pus com­mu­nity ear­lier this month. “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 univer­sity’s def­i­ni­tion of “un­af­fil­i­ated” peo­ple in­cludes alumni. The pol­icy re­quires such peo­ple to make reser­va­tions at least a week be­fore they want to speak pub­licly or hand out in­for­ma­tion, re­stricts groups to 25 or 50 peo­ple, per­mits two hours of speech, and des­ig­nates nine ar­eas on cam­pus where such events are al­lowed.

But those sites don’t in­clude the heart of the univer­sity, Koth­mann said; the des­ig­nated sites wouldn’t be the most ef­fec­tive places to spread a mes­sage. He said he be­lieves there is a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple at stake. The Jef­fer­so­nian tra­di­tion is to al­low peo­ple to ex­press even un­wel­come ideas, Koth­mann said. “You an­swer speech with speech. . . . That’s the an­ti­dote to dam­ag­ing speech.”

As a Jewish fam­ily, he said, they were fright­ened by the torch­light march. They’re also a U-Va. fam­ily: Koth­mann’s wife is also a 1989 grad­u­ate, and other rel­a­tives are stu­dents or alumni. They un­der­stand the prob­lem and what the univer­sity is try­ing to do. There’s no ques­tion the school has the right to put some re­stric­tions on the time, place and man­ner in which peo­ple speak, Koth­mann said.

“At some point, a group of peo­ple as­sem­bled to speak is a mob.” But, he said, “I don’t think this is the right pol­icy to make that dis­tinc­tion.”

So he grabbed his Bible bound in black leather as he left his home near Philadel­phia and drove to Char­lottesville. Once there, he tried to speak with univer­sity of­fi­cials about his con­cerns. And he told peo­ple in the gen­eral coun­sel’s of­fice he would chal­lenge the pol­icy Tues­day af­ter­noon on the Ro­tunda steps.

He read Psalms 121 and 122 and had be­gun a pas­sage from Isa­iah when a po­lice of­fi­cer ar­rived and po­litely be­gan ex­plain­ing the new rules. Koth­mann video­taped their in­ter­ac­tion and vol­un­tar­ily left cam­pus be­cause he didn’t want to get ar­rested. Univer­sity of­fi­cials con­firmed that the video he shared hap­pened at U-Va.

“In ac­cor­dance with univer­sity pol­icy, any un­af­fil­i­ated per­son who en­gages in pub­lic speak­ing on out­door univer­sity property with­out prop­erly re­serv­ing one of the des­ig­nated lo­ca­tions will be asked to make a reser­va­tion,” univer­sity spokesman Wes­ley Hester said. “The univer­sity’s time, place, and man­ner pol­icy ap­plies to all un­af­fil­i­ated per­sons who are en­gaged in pub­lic speak­ing, re­gard­less of con­tent.”

He said the pol­icy changes are de­signed to pro­vide a frame­work for un­af­fil­i­ated peo­ple “to peace­fully as­sem­ble and en­gage in con­sti­tu­tion­ally per­mis­si­ble speech at the univer­sity.”

The pres­i­dent of the stu­dent council at U-Va. did not re­turn mes­sages seek­ing com­ment about the pol­icy.

Stu­dents had lit­tle re­ac­tion to the new rules, Ju­lia Koth­mann said, per­haps be­cause ev­ery­one was busy with fi­nals or per­haps be­cause peo­ple were still so up­set by the white na­tion­al­ists who had gath­ered on cam­pus in Au­gust.

Some stu­dents and fac­ulty urged the univer­sity to is­sue no-tres­pass or­ders against some or­ga­niz­ers of the white-su­prem­a­cist rally. Last month, the univer­sity banned one of the or­ga­niz­ers, U-Va. alum­nus Jason Kessler, from its cam­pus and fa­cil­i­ties.

Univer­sity of­fi­cials said they had re­ceived re­ports from stu­dents that Kessler had threat­ened them. When Kessler came to the univer­sity’s law li­brary, some stu­dents and com­mu­nity mem­bers protested his pres­ence with signs ac­cus­ing him of caus­ing vi­o­lence.

Ju­lia Koth­mann was at first taken aback by her fa­ther’s idea and didn’t want other stu­dents to think her fam­ily was ad­vo­cat­ing on be­half of white su­prem­a­cists. But she is a strong be­liever in pro­tect­ing the right to free ex­pres­sion, even when the ideas ex­pressed are con­tro­ver­sial, and said the cam­pus is a place where lis­ten­ing to op­pos­ing view­points is val­ued. “I give the ad­min­is­tra­tors credit for cre­at­ing that cul­ture at U-Va. — that’s so im­por­tant for growth and learn­ing,” she said.

A few days af­ter the vi­o­lence in Au­gust, thou­sands of peo­ple filled the Lawn with can­dle­light, send­ing a mes­sage of love to re­claim the space. “We want to pre­serve the right of peo­ple to do that,” Ju­lia Koth­mann said.

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