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Politics & Government

UVa Student Newspaper Editor Reverses Position On Alt-Right After Charlottesville

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now we're going to hear from a student at the University of Virginia. Brendan Novak is an opinion editor at the school's newspaper, The Cavalier Daily. He wrote a column back in late July, arguing that last weekend's gathering of white nationalists and other far-right groups should be allowed to go on. But after watching events unfold in Charlottesville over the weekend, he now says he was naive. Brendan Novak is here with us in the studio. Welcome to the program.

BRENDAN NOVAK: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And tell me about what you first wrote in The Daily Cavalier (ph). What were you arguing, and why were you arguing it?

NOVAK: So initially, the column that I wrote was in response to calls by local groups in Charlottesville to retract the permit that was issued for the rally that occurred last weekend. And the way that I saw it was that their methods of trying to prevent the rally from occurring were violating these protesters' rights to free expression. You know, I'm a journalist. And I do have a pretty strong belief in the First Amendment and the right of people to express themselves peacefully.

SIEGEL: Even if it extends to people with some very ugly ideas.

NOVAK: Exactly. And free speech, it has a way of dealing with distasteful ideas automatically. And society is able to sort through the distasteful ideas by airing them out and allowing people themselves to decide what's right and what's wrong.

SIEGEL: Well, you left campus last Friday. And you watched the events over the weekend unfold from afar, from your home in Arlington, Va. What did you make of what you were seeing happening at your campus?

NOVAK: It was a surreal experience. I left on Friday, a complete serene, regular day in Charlottesville. I came home. And as I was going to sleep on Friday night, I opened Twitter, and I was flooded with images and videos documenting a march of armed white supremacists with lit torches, and as I woke up in the morning, to videos of assaults and harassment. I couldn't square my words with the consequences. It was a moment of clarity for me that the upholding of free speech is not - my words with the consequences. It was a moment of clarity for me that the upholding of free speech is not so important that you can protect violence and harassment and terror.

SIEGEL: You've obviously wrestled with this idea a bit over the past few weeks. Have you been able to conceptualize some test that would permit in this case the prior restraint of a demonstration, something about what was planned for Charlottesville that could have legitimately led someone to say, no, this is not an exercise of free speech that we'll tolerate in our city?

NOVAK: For sure, without a doubt, you cannot allow physical violence. That immediately disqualifies you from protection. I still stand by my belief in the First Amendment and the rights to free expression, but what we witnessed this weekend was not, in my opinion, protected speech. These protesters came in with the express intent to incite violence in Charlottesville.

SIEGEL: You're about to head back to campus in Charlottesville. And given your experience of what happened there and what you're hearing from friends at UVA, how much do you expect things to be different when you get back to campus?

NOVAK: There's going to be a somber shadow hanging over grounds this fall. I mean, just this summer alone, we've had two separate demonstrations by white nationalists. And there's definitely a question as to whether the Charlottesville community is a safe space for students of color. I know that the local Charlottesville community and university community is taking great, great effort to show students and community members that it is safe.

SIEGEL: Brendan Novak is an opinion editor at The Cavalier Daily, the newspaper of the University of Virginia. We read about his columns in The New York Times. Brendan, thanks for talking with us.

NOVAK: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.