After criticism, UVA Board of Visitors reverses course on policy that would limit members' public speech

VIRGINIA — Following outcry that it stifles public debate, the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia is scrapping their first draft of a code of ethics policy that would have forbidden members from publicly disagreeing with board decisions.

The draft presented at a committee meeting last week said, “Visitors shall publicly support, or at the very least not openly oppose, the Board’s action as a strong, visible consensus facilitates successful extension of policy and strategy.”

Several state legislators spoke out against the clause, with one calling it “undemocratic” in The Washington Post. On Friday, the committee announced it would revise the draft to address First Amendment concerns raised by legislators and others.

UVA spokesman McGregor McCance emphasized that the version presented last week was only a first draft. The full meeting consisted of members going through the language of the text and discussing revisions. McCance said the next draft should be finished this week.

Throughout the meeting, board members agreed it was necessary to come across as one voice to the public.

“I know this is sensitive, but I can tell you that we’re going to hurt ourselves if we don’t have some clear statement on this,” committee chairman John Nau III said at the meeting. “You can’t have five spokesmen. Everybody can express their personal opinions. The problem is that when that’s done in the external marketplace, it becomes construed either as a conflict or the opinion of the board, and that’s what can’t happen.”

The draft also prevents board members from requesting information on their own from the university, instead insisting they go through a committee head.

Without a prompt, several members defended that they weren’t taking away anyone’s rights and that it shouldn’t be seen as a penalty.

“It’s not to restrict information, it’s to be more efficient,” Nau said.

Andrew Elliott, managing editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Cavalier, said “any decision meant to lessen public discourse is inherently bad.” He said he thinks the policy may have come from board members who supported a tuition increase that was publicly criticized by other members.

That discussion has been beneficial to the community,” Elliott said. “People want to hear that debate played out.”

Former UVA President Robert O’Neil, now a senior fellow at the Association for Governing Boards, said the policy has “a slightly sharper edge” than he thinks the drafters may have intended. He said he can see how it can be interpreted as censoring members to ensure board unity.

“I hope the token is a commitment to consensus rather than a suppression of individual differences, but that may be overly optimistic,” O’Neil said.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government said she was concerned about the First Amendment implications of the policy.

“It’s disappointing that UVA wants to promote unanimity and one voice more than they want to embrace debate, as if democracy was this neat tidy package that had everybody in a kumbaya moment and that’s just not how it works,” Rhyne said.

Board member Helen Dragas, who is not on the committee that drafted the policy, called it “unconstitutional” and said she worries about other freedoms it risks at universities.

“Efforts to promote collaboration are one thing, but to suggest that we should agree to shut the door on a free and open exchange of information and ideas — particularly at an institution of higher learning — is something else altogether,” she said in an email. “Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds has called it undemocratic. I call it a frightening slippery slope and a serious threat to offering the affordable, excellent education that is the fundamental purpose of public higher education.”

State Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen, D-Fairfax. called the policy “ridiculous.”

“(Board members) represent the public, they represent the taxpayer,” he said. “If they agree or disagree with a board decision, not only do they have a right, but they have a duty to express that. If they want to express that to the media or an alumni association or a public official — so what? That’s the whole purpose of the board.”

He said dissent is necessary in legislative-like bodies, including the Board of Visitors.

“Why is dissent a good thing? — Why is freedom a good thing? Why is the First Amendment a good thing? Why is America a good thing?” Petersen said. “I don’t know why, it’s just how we do things. “

McCance said the draft has led to “a healthy and vigorous public discussion of the issue.”

The revised policy will be presented to the full board to vote on in September.

Contact Kass by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.