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We must defend free speech, while making personal attacks unacceptable

December 2, 2016

Dear Mountaineer Family,

Last night, West Virginia University became the latest stop on Milo Yiannopoulos’ college tour after being invited by a student organization. Many voiced their opposition to his being on our campus and were appalled at the message he delivered. I completely understand and appreciate that perspective.

However, I also understand and appreciate the other perspective — from those who genuinely wanted to hear him speak.

As President of West Virginia University, I will always support the decision to bring a speaker to campus and our community – no matter how controversial. We never want to censor a person’s right to free speech. It is through listening to people who think differently from others that we learn about the world and discover who we really are. And I believe that is one of the most valuable experiences one can have on a college campus.

However, that does not mean I, as President, lose my First Amendment right to speak up and condemn what is presented. I will never support the tactics of any speaker who brings unsubstantiated and false attacks against a member of our Mountaineer family. It is one thing to share differing opinions that others may find offensive. It is another to be defamatory and target individuals. I personally condemn the tactic this speaker chose to vindictively attack one of our faculty members, Daniel Brewster.

While the University will always be committed to creating an open forum that supports free speech, we are also strongly committed to keeping our campus and local communities inclusive and safe.

I am reminded of a quote by author and essayist George Steiner: “Central to everything I am and believe and have written is my astonishment, naïve as it seems to people, that you can use human speech to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate.”

We are at a pivotal point – as a nation and as a University. As a nation, we must determine how to come together to move our country forward. As a University, we must do the same.

For far too long, we have been yelling at each other instead of listening to each other. We use the First Amendment to speak language that hurts rather than heals. We use social media and anonymous e-mails to tear each other down instead of lifting each other up. We look for someone to “fix things” instead of taking ownership and being accountable.

I believe it is up to us – as the faculty, staff, students and alumni of West Virginia University – to demonstrate the leadership required to create a community that respects each other, listens to each other and works with one another to create the free and inclusive environment where all can pursue their dreams and aspirations.

In fact, our own students led such an effort last evening when they began to post positive and supportive messages on social media in response to the speaker’s tactics. In less than 12 hours, there were 500 uses of #BecauseofBrewster, and it has been seen by more than 185,000 people – with that number continuing to rise.

Let us use this moment in our University’s history to serve as the impetus for us to change how we act – to change how we react. And let us commit to bringing people together – no matter how far apart they might be. It is only through intentional conversations and meaningful actions that we can truly change our University, our state and our world.


E. Gordon Gee

E. Gordon Gee
President, West Virginia University