President receives statement on academic freedom and free speech written by the Task Force on Freedom of Expression and Inquiry
February 27, 2023
A draft university statement affirming Virginia Tech’s commitments to academic freedom and the constitutional right of free speech, as well as recommendations for exercising and demonstrating these commitments in a manner that exemplifies Virginia Tech’s Principles of Community, has been presented to President Tim Sands from the Task Force on Freedom of Expression and Inquiry.
Sands has reviewed the statement and recommendations and will now provide them to the members of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors for further discussion at the board’s March 19-20 meeting.
The statement and corresponding recommendations were developed during the fall semester by a 21-member group of Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, and alumni. The Task Force on Freedom of Expression and Inquiry was sponsored by Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke and Robert Weiss, professor of geosciences in the College of Science and president of the Faculty Senate.
The draft statement written by the task force is as follows:
"Virginia Tech unequivocally commits to upholding freedom of speech and academic freedom.
"Virginia Tech affirms the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, including the right to freedom of speech. The First Amendment requires the university to protect the expression of ideas and opinions, including those that people may find controversial, disagreeable, or offensive. Freedom of speech, like all rights in the Constitution, is not absolute. While most speech is protected by the First Amendment, it does not protect speech or actions that violate the law, such as incitement, defamation, threats, privacy violation, or intellectual property infringement, nor does it protect against unlawful harassment or discrimination. In addition, the First Amendment allows the university to regulate the time, place, and manner of expression. At Virginia Tech, freedom of speech should be exercised in a manner that ensures a learning environment that supports and promotes civil debate and mutual respect across differences.
"Academic freedom, free expression, and open inquiry are core principles of higher education. Academic freedom enables scholars to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish within an area of expertise without interference or penalty. Academic freedom is essential to create and disseminate knowledge with the mission of improving the quality of life and the human condition within the Commonwealth of Virginia and throughout the world. Virginia Tech must ensure that all members of the university community can ask questions, listen to others, and learn through exposure to a range of ideas from a diverse community of scholars. Virginia Tech is committed to defending academic freedom and freedom of speech while providing a diverse and inclusive learning and work environment."
Robin Queen, the Kevin P. Granata Faculty Fellow, professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, and director of the Granata Biomechanics Lab in the College of Engineering, served as chair of the task force.
“It is our role as a public university to uphold the first amendment and academic freedom by facilitating respectful dialogue in an environment of diverse perspectives,” said Sands. “I appreciate Robin and the task force for engaging many different voices in this important conversation. I look forward to the conversation with the full board as we renew our focus on participatory citizenship, free expression, and purposeful inclusion of different viewpoints at Virginia Tech.”
Sands also noted that Virginia Tech has joined other Virginia colleges and universities and will engage in a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and the Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI) partnership to leverage CDI’s expertise and evidence-based tools designed to help students and faculty build skills to discuss complex and divisive topics productively. This partnership will complement and enhance on-going efforts to equip our campus community with key skills for engaging in meaningful dialogue across difference.
The task force began its work in August and as a part of their deliberation, the group reviewed 64 similar external statements and held two invited presentations on constitutional law and the First Amendment and academic freedom.
In addition to Queen, members of the task force included:
- Janice Austin, assistant dean and director of graduate admissions, Graduate School
- Ben Beiter, graduate student and president, Graduate and Professional Student Senate
- Laura Belmonte professor and dean, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
- Harrison Blythe, director of compliance and conflict resolution, Office of Equity and Accessibility
- Ainsley Cragin, undergraduate student and vice president for issues and policy, Undergraduate Student Senate
- James Hawdon, professor of sociology
- Kay Heidbreder, University Legal Counsel
- Anna James, member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors
- Vivica Kraak, associate professor, human nutrition, food, and exercise science
- Kara Latopolski, director of academic integrity, Undergraduate Academic Affairs
- Caroline Lohr, undergraduate student and president, Undergraduate Student Senate
- Gabby McCollum, director of New Student and Family Programs, Student Affairs
- Mark Owczarski, associate vice president for communications and marketing
- Khadijah Queen, associate professor of English
- Ali Mehrizi-Sani, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering
- Tasia Persson, executive assistant to the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
- Chloe Robertson, graduate student and vice president, Graduate and Professional Student Senate
- Jeff Veatch, member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors
- Jerald Walz, collegiate assistant professor, agricultural leadership and community education
- Chris Yianilos, vice president for government and community relations