Administration speaks on First Amendment rights

Photo by Casey Cole
Photo by Casey Cole
Photo by Casey Cole
Photo by Casey Cole

Sometimes, going to class can be exciting in the wrong way. Occasionally,  the route to class through the Compass might inform you of your eternity of damnation to suffering and hellfire. Other times, like on Halloween this year, some students are inadvertently accused of murder and publicly shamed.

Many students called on VCU for some warning when The Center of Bio-Ethical Reform came to campus on Oct. 31 and prominently displayed imagery of dissected fetuses beside victims of lynchings, hate crimes and genocide to make a statement likening abortion to genocide.

“It sucks that people have to experience it before we can fight back as a student body,” said VCUarts student Sarah Gertler.

Gertler was one of the counter-protesters who assembled to combat the rhetoric of the Center of Bio-Ethical Reform when they came to campus.

In contrast, Dean of Student Affairs Reuban Rodriguez said there’s no concrete mechanism to deny a group from assembling on the Compass.

“The only classic example (of denying a group) is if someone is going to advocate imminent violence,” Rodriguez said. “It’s kind of narrowly defined.”

With more than 30,000 students and 15,000 staff, Rodriguez said the university tries to tend to individual needs the best it can.

“We are the beneficiaries of a democracy and sometimes that can be very painful,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully it’s another piece of their education experience to better meet the next challenges that may come up.”

VCU administration can not warn students about groups such as The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform coming to campus, Rodriguez said, because it would constitute an unlawful limitation on  free speech protected by the First Amendment.

“The University allows speech for all types of speakers,” said political science and constitutional law scholar John Aughenbaugh in an email. “It cannot restrict speakers whose content might offend some members of the University community.”

According to Aughenbaugh, the only terms the University can lawfully exercise over such groups are conditions of time, place and manner of assembly.

“For instance, the University and the Richmond police department can restrict and even prohibit speech at the corner of Broad and Harrison during rush hours,” Aughenbaugh said, “Because speech at that location at those times of day would cause a public safety problem.”

Gertler, who joined the counter-protestors on Oct. 31 in response to the abortion exhibit, said the bigger issue is when groups spread misinformation.

“(The counter-protesters) formed a wall between students and demonstrators,” Gertler said. “If we are just able to provide unbiased information and break down the kinds of misconceptions these groups are trying to push, we can take it from an emotional fight to a rational one.”

Gertler said this is important to protect members of the student body that may have suffered emotional or physical trauma in the past that makes them vulnerable to such groups.

“If you can handle it, there’s nothing stopping you from being out there and countering their misinformation. It’s our campus and it’s up to all of us to do what we can.”

VCU offers individual and group-setting counseling services available on both Monroe Park and MCV campuses.  Click here to learn more.


Jesse Adcock. Photo by Julie TrippJesse Adcock
Jesse is a junior print journalism major and Arabic and Middle Eastern culture minor. He has walked in the valley with no water and bitten the heads off of snakes.
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