Dean of Students Allen Groves has always believed in free speech. But when a group of white nationalists marched with through Grounds with torches and yelled anti-Semitic chants on the evening of Aug. 11, his belief in the right of free speech collided with his job as dean.
Groves was at home that Friday when he heard that the group of neo-Nazis would be marching on the Lawn. A far-right white nationalist rally was scheduled the next day, ostensibly to protest the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park). However, the plans to march through central Grounds came as a surprise to the University administration.
When he heard of the plans, he left his home in southern Albemarle County and arrived on Grounds to learn that University students had surrounded Thomas Jefferson statue north of the Rotunda.
“I went into the crowd of white supremacists,” Groves said, as he began recounting the event of Aug. 11 in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “I leaned in [to the students] and said, ‘It’s Dean Groves. It’s Dean Groves. Let me get you out of here.’”
The police had not arrived yet, so Groves rushed into the crowd to reach the students.
“Next thing I knew, one of the white supremacists threw one of the torches,” Groves said. “It hit me in the arm, and it cut my arm, and the flaming part fell to the ground … Within seconds, they started attacking several of the people around the statue.”
Pulling students out from the crowd, Groves and several others were maced in the chaos that erupted. Several others were injured during the protest as well.
Groves said he is a strong proponent of individual rights and freedom of speech. As questions arise about the limitations of the First Amendment on college campuses, Groves has been a fairly outspoken member of the community. He recently gave a lecture about “The Balance Between Free Speech and Bias” to the Kappa Rho Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. “We are at a stage right now in this country where across the spectrum, people do not want to listen to views that oppose their own way of thinking,” Groves told The Cavalier Daily. “And so with social media being what it is, you and I can only follow those people or website that we agree with and not anybody that we don't. I think that is highly dangerous.”
He cautions students to be careful about suppressing speech at a time when society might be angry, afraid or frustrated because that may come back to haunt them. He encourages students to listen to speakers with opposing viewpoints and instead of shouting them down, he challenges students to ask tough questions.
“The reason we allow speech we deem hateful is to protect our rights to protest and freely speak out on controversial topics of the time,” Groves said. “Once we carve away at that core freedom, we may not like how much is swept into the category of banned ‘hateful’ speech.”
However, in the case of the events of Aug. 11 and 12 in Charlottesville, Groves said not all speech was protected.
“[The First Amendment] does not permit speech that qualifies as ‘incitement’ to commit imminent acts of violence,” Groves said in an email. “I believe certain speech by the alt-right/white nationalists on August 11 was hateful speech that is nonetheless protected by the Constitution, while other speech that night was likely incitement that is not protected speech. I also believe the use of torches in the context presented on August 11 was impermissible. Moreover, violence is not speech.”
As Groves enters his 11th year working in administration at the University, he has worked continually to protect students’ speech, especially helping raise the volume of minority voices around Grounds.