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Warning Issued Against VMI for Unconstitutional Overreach in Violating Cadets’ First Amendment Rights

A warning letter to the Virginia Military Institute’s Commandant, Col. (ret.) Adrian Bogart III co-signed by The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) was formally presented at the VMI Board of Visors (BOV) meeting in Lexington on Wednesday September 21st.

FIRE’s and SPLC’s warning, based on hundreds of pages of documentary evidence found, in part, that “VMI’s cumulative acts seeking to bend the paper [The Cadet] to administrative pressure and interfering with its staff’s activities squarely contradict the Institute’s obligations under the First Amendment…”

According to FIRE’s letter, “The Cadet has, on several occasions, faced intimidation from VMI administrators to publish content more flattering to the college.”

FIRE’s investigation which references “over a year’s worth of documented violations” at VMI found that “Cadet editors have tried to work with you and your administration to establish a mutual understanding of the paper’s rights and operations on campus with little success.” And that “both cadets and their alumni mentors/advisors were subject to false statements issued by the VMI administration and VMI Alumni Association designed to pressure or discredit them and the newspaper.”

According to the FIRE letter, “The series of facts below and numerous other missteps on the part of VMI’s administration, of which there were too many to include in a single letter, reflect a continued failure to respect the rights of The Cadet and its staff.”

FIRE also charged that, “the influence VMI has exerted over The Cadet with regard to its distribution, content, and operations reflects a serious intrusion on the newspaper’s independence.”

In some of its public social media postings, letters to cadets, alumni, faculty and staff as well as a previous BOV declaration of fully supporting an independent student newspaper at VMI and the First Amendment, FIRE’s letter to Col. (ret.) Bogart states, “While your administration has stated its intention is not to control the content of The Cadet, the current pattern of unconstitutional overreach into the paper’s dealings demonstrates otherwise.”

FIRE also found what they say are documented instances wherein VMI is “Denying [cadets and their newspaper] access to resources that were historically available to the paper … on the implied condition that The Cadet subject itself to the will of your administration is an unconstitutional restraint on core expressive activity.”

The FIRE and SPLC warning comes after what they describe as “particularly disturbing incidents” at VMI including ones where cadets were threatened with disciplinary action when they attempted to re-start their independent paper, The Cadet, in May 2021, culminating is the recent incident in May 2022 when the out-going student Editor-in-Chief was escorted to the VMI Superintendent’s office by Col. (ret.) Bogart and told by Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins that VMI would never recognize The Cadet or provide its historic privileges unless cadets “severed all ties” with alumni and agreed to come under a faculty advisor the administration would appoint.

For its part, VMI attempted on two occasions to replace The Cadet with an alternative student newspaper under the administration. The VMI Corps of cadets soundly rejected both attempts and continue to back their newspaper.

FIRE concludes its warning to VMI stating, “Simply stated, VMI lacks authority to make any decision on behalf of The Cadet. VMI also lacks the authority to penalize Cadet Editors for those decisions. Your and other administrators’ insistence that the paper publish content more flattering to the Institute, demands that the paper disaffiliate from its tradition of mentorship and interference with its distribution impermissibly encroach upon the student editors’ right to make decisions about the content and operations of the paper.”

The letter ends calling on VMI to “recommit to its legal obligations, refrain from unduly pressuring The Cadet.

Although the strongest and most detailed to date FIRE’s warning is not the first incident of First Amendment violations at VMI regarding The Cadet. The Student Press Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization providing information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them, previously provided VMI and Col. (ret.) Bogart concerns over their treatment of cadets, their mentors and The Cadet, as well as met with Mr. Patrick O’Leary, VMI’s legal counsel from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.

On behalf of the cadet staff, The Cadet, and The Cadet Foundation, the Global Liberty Alliance (GLA), a non-profit committed to combating violations of fundamental rights throughout the world, attempted to coordinate with O’Leary on several occasions, and filed a formal complaint with the Virginia Office of the Attorney-General. To date, there’s been no response from the Attorney-General’s office.

Alumni also voiced concerns regarding censorship and First Amendment violations in other areas to the VMI administration, Alumni Association and BOV previously without response. There are indications that other First Amendment complaints against VMI were voiced separately by cadets, alumni, faculty and staff.

In October 2021, following receipt of a letter from Governor Northam merely alleging systemic racism at VMI, the Commonwealth and BOV replaced then Superintendent Peay, initiated a $1M investigation, enacted significant fundamental changes to the VMI administration, Ratline, Honor System and class system, even though the Final Report failed to provide a single empirically supported finding supporting that letter.

FIRE’s detailed allegations, on the other hand, supported by hundreds of pages of documentary evidence of “unconstitutional overreach” by the VMI administration, should receive no less than the same level of response and attention by the Governor and the BOV..

The Cadet is a student-run publication that has operated as an independent student newspaper at VMI since 1907. Originally founded in 1871 as a magazine, it has been editorially independent from VMI since its inception, and is published by students with the guidance of alumni and professional journalists. The Cadet is financially independent from VMI, funded by support from alumni, donors, subscriptions, and advertisements. Following a history of challenges to its editorial independence, The Cadet ceased publication in 2016.

After a five-year hiatus, a group of students and alumni revived The Cadet in 2021, and the paper has operated continuously since, publishing at least two editions each month of the academic year. The paper is now published by The Cadet Foundation, a non-profit corporation separate from VMI created by students and alumni to support The Cadet and ensure its continuity with year-to-year editorial turnover.

The newspaper’s student staff holds exclusive editorial control over the decisions and content of the paper. The present-day Cadet is recognized by Virginia Governor and VMI Commander-in-Chief Glenn Youngkin and the Virginia General Assembly as an independent, student-run newspaper and the continuation of the original Cadet.

Read the warning letter HERE: 

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