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The provost and the protester: The free speech debate has major consequences

An 11th man has been arrested for participating in the racist 2017 torch-wielding mob that rattled the University of Virginia on the eve of the Unite the Right rally-turned-riot in Charlottesville, an act which his compatriots and their attorneys have argued remains protected free speech.

The news comes as a former UVa provost has come under fire for her own views over what constitutes free speech on college campuses, ultimately leading to her resignation from the top post at one of the country’s leading universities.

And while Jamie Troutman and Liz Magill are separated by a world of difference, their fates are being shaped by a single shared question: What constitutes free speech on America’s college campuses?

Troutman, a 34-year-old resident of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, turned himself in to local police Oct. 24, according to court filings. "Troutman was taken into custody without incident," according to his arrest record. "Handcuffs were checked for fit and double locked and adjusted."

Like the other men arrested for participating in the march and charged with breaking Virginia’s Klan-era law against using fire to racially intimidate, Troutman was initially held without bail.

"Possibly likely to obstruct/threaten/injure/intimidate based off the nature of the crime," wrote magistrate Lashonda Lee.

Granted a bail hearing two days later, Ryan was released on a $5,000 personal recognizance bond by substitute Judge H. Thomas Padrick Jr. and allowed to return to his home state.

Several aspects of what happened in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017 have been portrayed as presages of later American struggles.

"Jews will not replace us" was one of the loudest and most persistent chants on the UVa Lawn on the evening of Aug. 11, 2017. Subsequently, there were persistent calls to prosecute the torch-wielders, but Albemarle County’s lead prosecutor at the time, Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci, asserted that Virginia’s so-called cross-burning law did not apply.

In the wake of that weekend’s events, which resulted in the death of anti-racist counterprotester Heather Heyer at the hands of avowed neo-Nazi James Fields of Ohio, UVa banned two of its alumni from returning to Grounds. They were rally organizer Jason Kessler and would-be rally headliner Richard Spencer. The university also tightened its open-flame policy to clearly ban torches on the school’s property.

The debate over what constitutes protected free expression and what constitutes a violent threat has embroiled college campuses for decades but escalated sharply around the events of 2017.

Last week, the presidents of three private universities were called to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress about the rise in antisemitic rhetoric on college campuses amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war playing out in Gaza. One of those presidents was Magill, a UVa law graduate who served as provost at UVa from 2019 until 2022.

UVa President Jim Ryan "convinced Magill to depart her post as dean of the Stanford University Law School and join his team as UVA provost," in the words of the UVa Alumni Association’s own publication Virginia Magazine.

Magill resigned from her post as president of the University of Pennsylvania on Saturday after facing tremendous backlash for her testimony before Congress days prior.

"It is a context-dependent decision," Magill responded to a question from New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik during Tuesday’s hearing.

"That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context?" Stefanik asked.

Magill did not back down on Capitol Hill but did backtrack in a video released Wednesday.

“In that moment,” Magill says in the video, “I was focused on our university’s long-standing policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable. I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil — plain and simple.”

It was not enough.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro rebuked Magill and her comments, businessman Ross Stevens sent a letter demanding the return of a $100 million gift to the university and a congressional committee opened an investigation into Penn’s policies and disciplinary procedures.

Magill announced her resignation on Saturday.

“It has been my privilege to serve as President of this remarkable institution," Magill said in the announcement, making no mention of what prompted her decision. "It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members to advance Penn’s vital missions.”

Magill also played a role in the free speech debate during her time at UVa.

Alongside Ryan, she created the school’s Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry in 2021.

“Free expression and free inquiry are the lifeblood of universities; these principles underpin this University’s educational missions of producing knowledge, developing citizen leaders, and serving,” Magill said in a statement at the time. “In a moment where the country is experiencing heightened conflict, we believe it’s essential to concisely articulate those foundational commitments of University life.”

In 2019, when UVa professor and activist Jalane Schmidt was sued for defamation for comments she made about a defender of Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments, the Virginia Division of Risk Management, which manages the commonwealth’s liability risk management plan, decided that her comments fell outside the scope of her employment as a faculty member and she could not be represented by university counsel. Magill, however, argued the opposite.

“In this case, it was our view the [sic] Professor Schmidt’s statements were within her employment as a professor,” Magill and Ryan wrote in a letter to UVa faculty at the time. “In discussions with DRM, we expressed the view that Professor Schmidt’s statements were consistent with her role as a professor and therefore within the scope of her employment.”

But the back-and-forth over what constitutes protected free speech and the tension between university leaders and university community members on the subject predates Magill.

One of the first battles before the so-called Summer of Hate was UVa’s swift censure of an adjunct professor and Charlottesville restaurant owner who mused on Facebook that Black Lives Matter was a racist organization.

That man, Douglas Muir, became the subject of no fewer than three official UVa press statements and myriad denouncements from student groups, assailing his assertion. As his West Main Street restaurant Bella’s was boycotted, UVa gave Muir a furlough from his three classes, and he was dropped from the teaching rolls the following semester.

“The University of Virginia stands firmly against racism and social injustice of any kind," wrote Magill’s predecessor, Tom Katsouleas.

The editorial board of the student-run Cavalier Daily newspaper was practically alone in wondering if UVa had gone too far to squelch dissent.

"Muir’s comparison, while noxious, constitutes a political statement," wrote the authors of a Cavalier Daily editorial. "While we strongly condemn his views, we acknowledge his right to voice them — in particular outside the classroom — just as we support students protesting them."

As for the 10 other named participants in the 2017 march across Grounds, four have already offered guilty pleas, three others have upcoming trials and the rest are still weaving their way through Albemarle County Circuit Court.

Troutman, who supports a family of four with his work at a trucking company, has chosen Elliott Harding as his lawyer. His next hearing is slated for Feb. 5.


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