April 21, 2015

Letter to the Campus Community

Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students:

As a nationally recognized military- and veteran-serving institution, Valdosta State University is, and always will be, proud to serve those who have served our country.

Nothing will allow our commitment to those brave men and women to waver.

As a public university, we are also committed to the foundational principles of the very Constitution that our brave service men and women protect. Most important among these principles for an institution of higher learning is the right of free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.

On April 17, Valdosta State University stood on the side of the Constitution of the United States of America and its students’ right to express themselves, even in the face of widespread disagreement. We believe in the core principles for which the flag of this great nation stands and will not restrict the protections afforded to all Americans under the First Amendment, including those participating in subsequent peaceful marches and protests.

That said, individuals are not truly free to learn and to express themselves in an unsafe environment. The safety of our students, faculty, and staff is our highest priority. Therefore, while we protect peoples’ civil liberties, we will be vigilant in ensuring order is maintained. We are actively monitoring the situation and continue to work closely with local law enforcement. Any action by any individual or group that jeopardizes the safety or disrupts the orderly operations of the university will be dealt with swiftly and justly.

So, while we respect the strong feelings held by many regarding our nation and its symbols, we also respect the rights of our students, faculty, and staff to express themselves through constitutionally protected symbolic expression in an environment that encourages, rather than discourages, civil debate. The events of April 17, and those in its aftermath, display just such expression.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the Texas v. Johnson case that the First Amendment protects symbolic political expression, even with the American flag. As Justice Brennan stated in that decision, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

Public higher education is as old as our Republic, and so are the controversies and disagreements that will inevitably be found on our campuses. VSU will always protect the constitutional rights of our students, faculty, and staff. We will also always serve those brave men and women who swear to defend our Constitution.

Dr. William J. McKinney, president of Valdosta State University