1. We support the Virginia Tech Principles of Community as ratified March 14, 2005.
2. In addition, we specify the manner in which we will engage in public discourse over matters of difference. To do this, we draw on The Williamsburg Charter. This national document was ratified in Williamsburg, VA, on the 200th anniversary (1988) of the call for the Bill of Rights, and was signed by many individuals, including:
President Jimmy Carter, President Gerald Ford, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Sen. Mark Hatfield, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, Sen. John Warner, Gov. Gerald Baliles, Gov. Michael Dukakis, Rep. Rick C. Boucher, (State) Sen. Paul Trible, Walter Cronkite, Dr. George Gallup, David Gergen, Joe Gibbs, Dr. Billy Graham, Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman, Dr. Benjamin Hooks, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Henry Luce, J. Willard Marriott, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Professor Elie Wiesel, and Bishop Seigen H. Yamaoka (Buddhist Church of America).
We also support The Williamsburg Charter – the entire document, and draw specifically on four guidelines listed therein for conducting public discourse in a manner that is both democratic and civil (quoted in part below):
a. “First, those who claim the right to dissent should assume the responsibility to debate:” This guideline draws upon two assumptions of the U. S. Constitution: (1) pluralism acknowledges the presence of groups in society whose ultimate faith commitments will differ and may be mutually exclusive; and (2) as per the Preamble (“We the People…”) mutual courtesy and respect are presumed in public discourse among those who choose to so engage. In democratic society, “[t]here must always be room for those who do not wish to participate in the public ordering of our common life…. [However,] for those who do…, it should be understood that claiming the right to dissent should carry the responsibility to debate. As this responsibility is exercised, the characteristic American formula of individual liberty complemented by respect for the opinions of others permits differences to be asserted, yet a broad, active community of understanding to be sustained.”
b. “Second, those who claim the right to criticize should assume the responsibility to comprehend:” Within a pluralistic democracy, citizens have the responsibility to respect the right of other citizens to hold and/or advocate for any public policy. “When any view is expressed, all must uphold as constitutionally protected its advocate’s right to express it.” Genuine tolerance both honestly comprehends and evaluates sincere differences between views and thereby promotes impartiality as well as pluralism. Yet, this does not preclude any individual’s right to challenge an expressed view as “politically pernicious, philosophically false, ethically evil, theologically idolatrous, or simply absurd, as the case may be seen to be.”
c. “Third, those who claim the right to influence should accept the responsibility not to inflame:” A democratic society remains viable to the extent that its citizens are free to engage in public forums without either suppressing their own religious beliefs or threatening others in the process.
d. “Fourth, those who claim the right to participate should accept the responsibility to persuade:” As the Williamsburg Charter states it, the responsibility to persuade is the “corollary of the belief that conscience is inviolable, coercion of conscience is evil, and the public interest is best served by consent hard won from vigorous debate.”
3. We put forward three further emphases that do not contradict either document above, but go beyond them in specifics, although not in intent or tone. We believe these amplifications are helpful for an academic community (such as our own) to consider:
a. The VT Principles of Community, in its third affirmation, notes the value of human diversity. This value in an academic institution is rooted in part in law. In the Supreme Court case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), Justice Lewis Powell stated that affirmative action programs were justifiable only if they provided educational benefit to an institution; i.e., that a diverse student population would enhance the learning experience of all students in the classroom—thus, the endorsement of diversity as a pedagogical value.
Indeed, this value is realizable in a university community where burgeoning scholars are challenged to justify and refine their intellectual positions in the pursuit of truth. However, this does not mean that every outlook and every exposure adds value. Rather, it is in the fertile soil of civil public discourse that an individual can be exposed to a richness of diverse ideas that inform free (uncompelled) personal choices. And it is in that soil that the most informed and valuable choices are likely to be made.
The worth of the values a person affirms cannot be a function merely of the fact that they are affirmed. They must have a value that is independent of their being chosen. It is because of this objectivity that common understandings can be forged. If public consensus be the goal, then such consensus must be grounded in defensible understandings. It is the embracing of such understandings–and not the denial of their existence–that builds community and provides direction to a free and democratic society.
Nevertheless, regardless of the objective value of an individual’s ideas, or their utility and value in building a public consensus, each individual has the right to hold them. The fact that an individual may express a different point of view does not, in and of itself, constitute “inflammatory speech.” Because of this freedom to express a contrary position, others are similarly free to challenge civilly any expressed view, including describing it as possessing characteristics such as those alluded to at the end of section 2b above.
b. The Principles of Community also “reject[s] all forms of prejudice and discrimination.” The central notion here is that we refuse to discriminate against any person; with this statement we assert that faculty, staff, and students should not be restricted from pursuing any aspect of the mission of the university due to age, color, disability, gender, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran status. Naturally, we affirm the right of each person to express and evaluate thoughts and opinions freely, within a climate of civility, sensitivity, and mutual respect, as stated in Virginia Tech’s second principle of community.
c. Faculty members at institutions of higher learning may have a unique role in American society that requires explicit protection under what is generally called “academic freedom.”
In 1940 the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges joined forces to revise the 1925 Conference Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure. This 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states three important principles on academic freedom, which we quote in their entirety:
. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
4. In sum, we of the Christian Scholars Network believe the following three documents, as interpreted in a complementary fashion, express the principles by which we ought to engage in civil discourse:
VT Principles of Community
The Williamsburg Charter
1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure
(Adopted 19 September 2012)