Bruce Kothmann said he isn’t typically prone to big public displays, but on May 7 he made one anyway.
He’d been preparing to drive from his home in the Philadelphia suburbs to pick up his daughter in Charlottesville — where she’d just finished her second year at the University of Virginia — when he got an email to alumni about a new campus rule.
“The revised policy requires unaffiliated persons to make reservations to engage in expressive activity in certain designated locations, on certain days and during certain hours, on University property,” the email read.
In other words, following the deadly white supremacist march last August, the university didn’t want outsiders using the campus as a soapbox.
“I decided to do something that would point out the discomfort of stopping people from speaking,” Kothmann says.
So on his way to the car, Kothmann grabbed a Bible.
The next day, he was at UVA, reading out loud from the prophet Isaiah on the steps of Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda.
But his protest against the curtailment of his speech wasn’t successful; nobody noticed him.
So he called the Office of the University Counsel and said he’d be coming back on May 8 to challenge the rule.
That did the trick. Back on the steps of the Rotunda, reading aloud from the Bible, university police approached Kothmann and respectfully asked him to leave.
“I don’t want to have to do this, but they’re telling me it’s a new policy that we have to enforce,” the officer tells Kothmann in a video he posted to YouTube.
Kothmann, who is Jewish, said his family was frightened by the videos coming out of Charlottesville last August, when a white nationalist rally featuring chants of “Jews will not replace us!” turned violent and left a counterprotester dead. But, he said, with its new rule, the university has gone too far in response to last summer’s violence.
The policy requires that alumni and other “unaffiliated people” register a week or more before they want to make a speech or distribute pamphlets on the university’s grounds, designating nine areas in which such “expressive activity” is allowed.
Kothmann said he was told by a lawyer that the policy is legal and he doesn’t plan to challenge it in court.
Laura Beltz, a policy officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told the university’s student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, that the policy is “fine on its face” but “could be enforced in an arbitrary way.”
Kothmann insisted that the rule runs counter to the university’s founding principles. He said he became passionate about free speech on campus in conversations with his daughter, Julia, who is studying at UVA and who interned at Foundation for Individual Rights in Education last summer.
Kothmann converted to Judaism when he married his wife, who serves as president of their Conservative synagogue.
He said his views on free speech also stem from his Jewish values.
“What does Torah study look like at our synagogue? It’s people arguing about the meaning of the Torah and the ideas of Judaism. People do not hold back.”
University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said in an email that “UVA is committed to the constitutional principle of free speech and to the safety and security of every member of our community. The policy revisions are focused on the activities of outside individuals or groups and are designed to provide a framework for unaffiliated persons to peacefully assemble and engage in constitutionally permissible speech at the University.”
Through his protest and video, Kothmann said he is hoping to raise awareness about the policy.
And he hasn’t ruled out another protest.
“Before this policy, I could say to people that UVA is leading the battle for free speech rights,” he said. “My hope is that there are a lot of people who agree with this point of view and just don’t know what to do.”
Jared Foretek is a staff writer with Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.