Jansen VanderMeulen '19
If you had told me when I came to the Law School in August of 2016 that I would be anywhere near a leadership role in the student newspaper, I would have laughed at you—nervously, of course, because 1L is scary, and everything I did was accompanied by nervous laughter. I was involved with student government in undergrad and came to have a rather low opinion of most student journalism. Well, here we are. Just over a year and half later, I’ve taken the reins of the Virginia Law Weekly as its editor-in-chief. In that time, I have come to appreciate the power of a student newspaper to document and shape the community around it.
For seventy years, the Law Weekly has done just that. A search through our archives—conveniently available on Hein Online, thanks to the diligent efforts of our librarians—reveals the story of the Law School itself. Conflict and turmoil, debate and deliberation, revelry and merriment—and, of course, softball. Since 1948, the Law Weekly has made it our mission to serve as a neutral, open forum for the denizens of the Law School community. We publish the thoughts and opinions of students and faculty without regard to content or viewpoint. We edit only for grammar, style, and clarity.
This policy rose to the forefront this past week, my first as editor-in-chief. Many of you know that the Law Weekly published a law student’s letter to the editor that made controversial claims about the immigration debate. The letter offended, disheartened, and outraged some students. In particular, students from underrepresented backgrounds told me they felt targeted and even threatened by the letter’s tone and assertions. The Law Weekly—and I in particular—regret that students were hurt by something we published. At its best, a student newspaper should bring people together, should create and display the elements of our community that bind us.
Prior to publishing the letter at issue, members of the Law Weekly editorial board and I consulted with Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Sarah Davies. We understood that the letter would cause members of our community to feel alienated and upset. Dean Davies encouraged us to follow our existing policy: to publish without regard for content or viewpoint. I want to make clear that Dean Davies did not force the Law Weekly to publish the letter. The administration neither has nor desires to have any editorial control over the Law Weekly or its staff. What Dean Davies offered us was good advice: to follow our longstanding and justifiable position toward controversial content, even when doing so makes us uncomfortable.
Despite the understandable offense caused by letters like last week’s, the Law Weekly remains committed to publishing the viewpoints of the Law School’s residents, contentious as they may be, so long as they do not amount to individual personal disparagement, defamation, threats, or harassment. The reasons for this are several. First, the Law Weekly is publicly funded; we receive substantial student dollars from Main Grounds that help alleviate our publishing costs. We’re no First Amendment experts, but we think that, having held ourselves out as a neutral forum that does not discriminate on the basis of content or viewpoint, we may place ourselves in legal jeopardy if we decide not to publish a letter on the basis of one of those categories.
But even if the law does not compel us to maintain neutrality, we think our principles as a student-funded newspaper do. This paper’s editors firmly believe that the answer to ill-informed, outrageous, and even offensive speech is not silence or censorship— it’s more speech. We hold to what Justice Kennedy wrote in United States v. Alvarez,1 that “[t]he remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true . . . . The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth.” This week’s edition contains a multitude of responses to last week’s letter. Most of them denounce the piece: “[w]rong,” “racist,” “nativist xenophobia,” and “supremely deficient” are among the labels applied to it. Rather than letting a noxious viewpoint fester in the unspoken underbelly of our community, our policy of neutrality allows such viewpoints to be aired—and then thoroughly repudiated by the thoughtful students who make up our student body.
Unfortunately, some members of our community responded to last week’s controversial letter by removing the remaining copies of the Law Weekly from its most visible newsstand, outside the library. Some of the copies were tagged with writing and posted throughout the Law School, including on the Law Weekly’s office bulletin board. We understand that the letter upset some of our readers. But our writers and editors work hard every week to produce a newspaper for students to read. Students and faculty from across our community contribute their thoughts, and a few volunteer editors work to ensure publication. Removing the papers devalues their work and attacks the very purpose of the newspaper: to propagate ideas and allow them to be debated and attacked, if necessary. We hope that in the future, our readers will leave the papers in the stands and allow their colleagues to make their own decisions about any pieces the paper contains.
We recognize that the burdens of free speech fall most heavily on those who have already faced the greatest societal burdens. As Dean Leslie Kendrick wrote for CNN last summer after the KKK rally in Charlottesville, “[The costs of free speech] fall disproportionately on African-American, Jewish, Muslim, and other minority members of the community. They are the ones who absorb these very public, very ugly assertions that they are worth less than other Americans.”2 By requiring authors of letters to include their names, photos, and contact information, we hope to alleviate that burden as best we can. In the Law Weekly, authors must stand behind their writing and the rightful criticism that follows; they cannot hide behind shields of anonymity. We remain committed to maintaining our status as a neutral forum in which members of the Law School community may stand up to ideas and opinions they disagree with.
As the Virginia Law Weekly approaches its 70th anniversary, we strive to provide the Law School with important stories about its community members; with interesting and funny insights into the lives of law students, faculty members, and staff; and with a place for opinions to be aired and debated. We hope our readers will continue to challenge us when they think we mess up, and tell us so in writing. Response letters to any article or letter may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, or to my own email address: email@example.com.
1 567 U.S. 709 (2012)