Alumni Free Speech Alliance Challenges VMI’s Attacks on Its Cadets

The Alumni Free Speech Alliance challenges the Institute’s “clear and deliberate acts” to restrict free speech and silence student-run newspaper, The Cadet

In a letter to the VMI Board of Visitors (BOV), Secretary of Education and Attorney-General of Virginia, the Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA) leadership, joined by Virginia AFSA Affiliates: The Jefferson Council, The Generals Redoubt. Madison Cabinet for Free Speech, and The Cadet Foundation  expressed their deep concerns about the clear and deliberate acts by the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) administration, and some members of its Board of Visitors, to: 1) restrict freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity at VMI; 2) work with and/or influence the media to publicly discredit and/or punish their own cadets exercising those constitutional rights through their student newspaper; and 3) seek to conceal their unethical and/or potentially unlawful activities that also may be in direct violation of VMI’s General Order(s).

The letter follows publication of an online petition calling for the VMI BOV to safeguard student rights to free speech and conduct a full and transparent investigation of allegations members of the VMI administration worked with the media and others in challenging recognition by the Virginia Press Association of The Cadet with its highest award for Journalistic Integrity and Community Service.

When BOV Executive Committee member, Mr. Teddy Gottwald ’83, challenged the VMI administration’s actions during the July 13, 2023, BOV Executive Session, the BOV President, Mr. Tom Watjen, supported by VMI superintendent, Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, set forth a plan to deliberately use “quorum walking” for a series of meetings with the superintendent and select BOV members the group believes is intended to avoid the session being public.

On or about August 7, 2023, Mr. Watjen publicly announced he “asked the assistant attorney general [Mr. Patrick O’Leary] assigned to VMI by the state’s Attorney General to look into these matters and report back to the full Board of Visitors during the closed session at the September board meeting.”  Shortly thereafter Virginia Attorney-General Miyares’ office disapproved Mr. O’Leary’s participation due to a conflict of interest. In the past Mr. O’Leary, on behalf of the superintendent, has challenged the existence of the paper to include threats of legal action against the Foundation organized to support it, The Cadet Foundation. This included cadets who serve on the Foundation’s Board.

After the action by the Attorney-General’s Office, on August 16, 2023, Mr. Watjen changed course “to handle this matter in the normal course of business”, and stated he was awaiting Maj. Gen. Wins plans for doing so. Maj. Gen. Wins and his Director of Communications, Col. Bill Wyatt are included as subjects of the allegations and request for investigation. There are reports Maj. Gen. Wins plans to call in cadets on the newspaper staff. This is raising addition concerns after the account provided by a former editor of the newspaper to FIRE and others, contained in the AFSA letter, detail an encounter with Maj. Gen. Wins, Col. Wyatt, and VMI Commandant, Col. Adrian Bogart in 2022 the former cadet described as “hostile and designed to intimidate him” into publishing an OP-ED the administration wrote condemning the newspaper, its writers and alumni supporting it.

The group requests assurances the full BOV is aware of Maj. Gen. Wins’ actions, and they are involved in any investigation. Also that if the cadets are forced into meeting with Maj. Gen. Wins that they are accompanied by a BOV member of their choosing and legal counsel, if they so desire, and that the meeting be recorded. They also request Governor Youngkin’s administration impress upon the BOV President the expectation that the BOV will conduct a full, open, transparent and impartial investigation of the events and not target cadets.

Support of its efforts for the investigation and protection of cadets, The Cadet Foundation is sponsoring a petition on Change.org. In just two weeks the petition already has over 2,000 signatures, hundreds of sponsors, over 62,000 views and is increasing daily. The petition includes the full video of Mr. Gottwald’s comments from the July 13, 2023 Executive Committee meeting.

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