A Little Rebellion Proves a Good Thing

Facing student protest, University of Virginia will allow people to bring signs to sporting events.

October 3, 2008

If Thomas Jefferson has been rolling over in his grave for the last few weeks, he can rest in peace again today.

The University of Virginia, founded by the champion of free speech, has repealed its ban on signs and banners at athletic events. The policy, which was met with protest and consternation from students, had become a “distraction” from the greater cause of cheering for the Cavaliers, Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said Thursday.

The policy went into effect this fall, about a year after a student was ejected from a game for holding a sign that called for the firing of Al Groh, the Cavaliers’ head football coach. Department officials justified the policy as a promotion of greater sportsmanship, but backed off that position amid increasing criticism of what some viewed as a heavy handed approach.

“The policy prohibiting signs, banners and flags in all UVA athletics venues has become a distraction and has taken the focus away from supporting our student-athletes,” Littlepage said in a statement. “Our football team needs our support right now and that should be our collective focus. With that in mind, I am repealing immediately the policy prohibiting signs, banners and flags in all athletics venues. I encourage all of our fans to be in attendance at Saturday night’s football game with [the University of] Maryland. My hope is our fans will wear orange and be prepared to support the Cavaliers.”

Littlepage’s suggestion that fans wear orange attire is a not-so-subtle response to a planned protest in which students were – perish the thought – going to wear blue instead. In recent years, Groh has asked students to form a “Sea of Orange” in the stands. By rejecting Groh’s suggestion, students had hoped to send a message of dissatisfaction with the department's sign policy, even while wearing one of Virginia's two official colors.

Virginia May Have Faced Legal Challenge

If Saturday’s planned protest were to have gone forward, it would have marked the second time students rallied together in opposition to the ban. During the second home football game of the season, against the University of Richmond, students held up blank signs to express their opposition.

Prior to the ban being lifted Thursday, Student Council President Matt Schrimper expressed support for the blue-clothed protest.

“We feel that particularly at the University of Virginia -- Mr. Jefferson’s university, as we like to say -- freedom of expression is something we hold very dear,” Schrimper said. “While we’re not making any legal claims here, we’re saying that the spirit of free speech ought to be held dear at a university, particularly the University of Virginia.”

There were grounds, however, for legal action against the university, according to a longtime constitutional lawyer in Charlottesville, Va. John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, said there is plenty of case law to suggest Virginia was on shaky legal ground with its ban.

“With big bureaucratic organizations like these, they don’t want to get sued,” said Whitehead, whose organization handles free speech cases. “The PR fallout [has been damaging], they’ve been criticized for it, and the legal cases out there say they would lose.”

Whitehead said he was approached by a person who considered suing the university over the ban, but the person ultimately decided not to invest the time in doing so.

The Rutherford Institute, a a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services in constitutional law cases, has handled several cases in the past that challenged bans on signage at athletic events. In 1992, a court found that banning signs that read “John 3:16” from the Washington Redskins’ R.F.K. Stadium was unconstitutional. In 1993, a Cincinnati Reds policy banning any signs that did not “pertain directly to baseball” was also successfully challenged in court.

There are other signage bans in college athletics, however, that remain on the books. In a recent piece for the Virginia Law Weekly , the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression cited similarly restrictive polices policies at Virginia Tech, James Madison University and Virginia Commonwealth University. But Robert O’Neil, the center’s director, said he found the University of Virginia’s policy to be too vague for enforcement. Could a T-shirt be considered a sign? What about a hat? Or a bare-chested student with a letter on his chest?

“In the absence of a detailed definition of ‘sign’ or ‘banner,’ it was very hard to know just what the policy meant,” O’Neil said Thursday.

Colleges that have successfully banned signage have typically done so under the guise of security. When the University of Mississippi wanted to ban Confederate flags at its sporting events, for instance, Ole Miss officials sidestepped the thorny issue by banning flag poles as a safety provision.

“The difference, I think, was that the policies at the other institutions were justified more on safety grounds or line of sight grounds,” said O’Neil, a former Virginia president. “Whereas the rationale given for the University of Virginia policy was to preserve decorum and promote sportsmanship, as I recall the phrase. Had it been challenged, I suspect it would have been more difficult to sustain it [on those grounds].”

Change Comes Day After Student Meeting

Littlepage, the university’s athletic director, met with a group of concerned students about the policy Wednesday. At the time, he gave no indication that he planned to budge on the policy, according to Kevin Dowlen, who attended the meeting.

“I’m completely stunned by [the reversal],” said Dowlen, who is president of an athletics fan club called ‘Hoo Crew. “I did not think anything like this would happen, especially the day after the meeting. I’m happy that students were able to rally behind a shared goal, and people were listening to us and it came through. I think the belief in student governance won out.”

Littlepage, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told students at the meeting that the sign ban had been considered for years, according to Dowlen. But conventional wisdom on “grounds,” as the Virginia campus is known, is that the athletic department was only prompted to move when the Cavaliers head football coach became the target of ridicule.

David Becker, a Virginia student, was ejected from a game last year when he held up a “Fire Groh” sign. Reached after the ban was lifted Thursday, Becker said, “It’s great they got rid of [the ban]. I think I’ll bring a sign to the game on Saturday.”

So what will Becker’s new sign read? “Something positive, maybe a little joke about the whole sign issue,” he said. “I’m not going to bring a ‘Fire Groh’ sign. I’m not going to open up that can of worms.”


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