A native of Boston born in 1934, Robert M. O’Neil earned a bachelor’s degree in American history from Harvard University in 1956, followed by a master’s degree a year later. After completing a law degree at Harvard in 1961, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., and in 1963 he started teaching at the University of California Law School at Berkeley. O’Neil’s career in academic administration began in 1967 with a two-year stint as executive assistant to SUNY-Buffalo president Martin Meyerson, whom O’Neil had met at Berkeley. O’Neil subsequently resumed teaching at Berkeley until 1971; the following year, he took up a post as vice president and provost for academic affairs at the University of Cincinnati, later becoming executive vice president for academic affairs. In 1975, O’Neil was named vice president of Indiana University for the Bloomington campus, and in 1980, he became president of the statewide University of Wisconsin system.
In September of 1985, O’Neil assumed the presidency of the University of Virginia, where in contrast to predecessors, he regarded himself as an “outsider” with no previous ties to the university. He brought to the post a commitment to improving conditions for women at the university and strengthening the numbers of African Americans among the faculty and student body. Under his leadership, the university established a Women’s Center, a day care center for employees’ children, and a scholarship program for African American students. At the same time, O’Neil oversaw the development of new programs of study in biomedical ethics, environmental science, women’s studies, and Tibetan studies, as well as a new master’s of teaching degree. Upon his retirement from the presidency in 1990, he became the founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, a natural outgrowth of his longtime professional interest in free speech and civil liberties.
Throughout his two decades as an academic administrator, O’Neil kept one foot in the classroom, teaching at least one course every semester. After stepping down as president, he continued to teach at the University of Virginia School of Law until retiring in 2007. He has shown a similar commitment to public service, taking on leadership roles for organizations including the Virginia Council for Open Government, the Council for America's First Freedom, the Commonwealth Fund, the James River Corporation, the American Association of University Professors, the Ford Foundation, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.
The Rights of Public Employees: The Basic ACLU Guide to the Rights of Public Employees (Southern Illinois University Press, 2d ed. 1993).
Free Speech in the College Community (Indiana University Press, 1997).
The First Amendment and Civil Liability (Indiana University Press, 2001).
Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power, and the University (Harvard University Press, 2008).
A Reaction to “The Imperial Scholar” and Professor Delgado’s Proposed Solution, 3 Law & Ineq. 255-259 (1985).
Civil Liberty and Military Necessity – Some Preliminary Thoughts on Goldman v. Weinberger, 113 Mil. L. Rev. 31-45 (1986).
Recalculating the Cost-Benefit Balance for Trial-Type Procedures, 38 Admin. L. Rev. 141-147 (1986).
Conditioned Funding in a Federal System, 16 N. Ky. L. Rev. 1-16 (1988).
Preferential Admissions Revisited: Some Reflections on DeFunis and Bakke, 14 J.C. & U.L. 423-434 (1988).
The Separation of Powers in a Federal System, 37 Emory L.J. 539-557 (1988).
Religious Expression: Speech or Worship – or Both?, 54 Mo. L. Rev. 501-514 (1989).
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The Truth May Not Set You Free, 47 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 515-525 (1990).
Artists, Grants and Rights: the Nea Controversy Revisited, 9 N.Y. L. Sch. J. Hum. Rts. 85-109 (1991).
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Regulating Speech to Cleanse Political Campaigns, 21 Cap. U. L. Rev. 575-591 (1992).
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Free Speech in Cyberspace: Communications Decency and Beyond, 3 Rich. J.L. & Tech. 4 (1997).
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The Internet in the College Community, 17 N. Ill. U. L. Rev. 191-203 (1997).
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Ride-alongs, Paparazzi, and Other Media Threats to Privacy, 33 U. Rich. L. Rev. 1167-1184 (2000).
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Academic Freedom: Past, Present, and Future Beyond September 11, in American Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges 91-114 (Philip G. Altbach et al. eds., Johns Hopkins University Press, 2d ed. 2005).
Freedom of Expression, in National Security Law 1025-1058 (John Norton Moore & Robert F. Turner eds., Carolina Academic Press, 2d ed. 2005).
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Limits of Freedom: The Ward Churchill Case, Change, Sept. 2006, at 34-41.
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The Story of Keyishian v. Board of Regents: Loyalty Oaths, Academic Freedom and Free Speech in the University Community, in Education Law Stories 285-302 (Michael A. Olivas & Ronna Greff Schneider eds., Foundation Press, 2008).
Separation Abroad : How Long the Jeffersonian Shadow?, in Religion, State, and Society: Jefferson’s Wall of Separation in Comparative Perspective 53-72 (Robert Fatton, Jr. & R. K. Ramazani eds., Palgrave Macmillan 2009).
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Judicial Deference to Academic Decisions: An Outmoded Concept?, 36 J.C. & U.L. 729-747 (2010).
Charting Civil Liberties and Protecting Free Expression: Learning from and Working with Justice William J. Brennan, in In Chambers: Stories of Supreme Court Law Clerks and Their Justices 284-294 (Todd C. Peppers & Artemus Ward eds., University of Virginia Press, 2012).
Hate Speech, Fighting Words, and Beyond – Why American Law Is Unique, 76 Alb. L. Rev. 467-498 (2012/2013).
A Tale of Two Greenmoss Builders, 88 Wash. L. Rev. 125-141 (2013).
Second Thoughts on the First Amendment in Higher Education, 83 Miss. L.J. 745-775 (2014).
The Absent Amicus: “With Friends Like These . . .”, 68 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 1-13 (2015).
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Law and Semiotics: A Reappraisal (reviewing Jackson, Semiotics and Legal Theory, and Kevelson, The Law as a System of Signs), 74½ Semiotica 173-176 (1989).
Review of Yarbrough, Mr. Justice Black and His Critics, 73 Ga. Hist. Q. 893-894 (1989).
Scholars’ Reply to Professor Fried (with others), 99 Yale L.J. 163-168 (1989).
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Point of View: Scientists Accused of Fraud Deserve Procedural Safeguards, Chron. Higher Educ., Nov. 28, 1990, at A48.
A Center to Protect Free Expression, Va. L. Sch. Rep., Summer 1991, at 17-20.
Dealing with Intolerance for Intolerant Views, Chron. Higher Educ., Dec. 18, 1991, at A44.
First Amendment Protections Threatened, Va. L. Wkly., Oct. 4, 1991, at 1, 3.
National Treasury Employees Union v. von Raab/Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Association, in The Bill of Rights, the Courts, and the Law 114 (David Bearinger ed., Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, 1991); reprinted in 3d ed. (1999) at 169.
New Jersey v. T.L.O, in The Bill of Rights, the Courts, and the Law 110 (David Bearinger ed., Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, 1991); reprinted in 3d ed. (1999) at 163-164.
Statement, in Public Interest in Broadcasting 139-142 (Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, Hearing, May 13, 1991).
Texas v. Johnson / United States v. Eichman, in The Bill of Rights, the Courts, and the Law 38-39 (David Bearinger ed., Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, 1991); reprinted in 3d ed. (1999) at 75-77.
Least Restrictive Means Test, in Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States 496-497 (Kermit L. Hall ed., Oxford University Press, 1992).
Nonverbal Expression, in Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States 597-599 (Kermit L. Hall ed., Oxford University Press, 1992).
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A Time to Re-Evaluate Campus Speech Codes, Chron. Higher Educ., July 8, 1992, at A40.
The Ashe and AIDS Story: Legal Right to Publish vs. Moral Obligation to Protect, Daily Progress, Feb. 14, 1993, at A11.
Hateful Messages That Force Free Speech to the Limit, Chron. Higher Educ., Feb. 16, 1994, at A52.
Review of De Grazia, Girls Lean Back Everywhere, 15 Cardozo L. Rev. 2329-2335 (1994).
Statement, in First Amendment Activities on Public Lands 5-11 (Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate, Hearing, July 18, 1995).
Statement, in Television Violence 235-238, 402-404 (Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate, Hearing, July 12, 1995).
Statement, in Age Discrimination in Employment Amendments of 1995, at 76-79 (Committee on Labor and Human Resources, U.S. Senate, Hearing, March 8, 1996).
Testimony, in Campaign Finance Reform Proposals of 1996, at 37-41 (Committee on Rules and Administration, U.S. Senate, Hearing, Feb. 1, 1996).
Alcohol Advertising on the Air: Beyond the Reach of Government? (Media Institute, 1997).
The First Amendment in Cyberspace: Use of the Internet in the College Community (moderator), 17 N. Ill. U. L. Rev. 205-222 (1997).
Revive News Council to Curb Press, Nat’l L.J., Sept. 22, 1997, at A23.
Statement, in Hearing on Early Retirement in Higher Education 34-41 (Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, Hearing, May 22, 1997).
Foreword, in Nicholas J. Karolides, Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds 9-11 (Facts on File, 1998).
Free Speech and Access to Information, in The Bill of Rights, the Courts, and the Law 48-50 (David Bearinger ed., Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, 3d ed. 1999).
Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, in The Bill of Rights, the Courts, and the Law 86-88 (David Bearinger ed., Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, 3d ed. 1999).
Privacy in the New Millennium: Virtual Trespass and Other Concepts, Hum. Rts., Fall 1999, at 15-16.
Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, in The Bill of Rights, the Courts, and the Law 91-92 (David Bearinger ed., Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, 3d ed. 1999).
Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., in 2 Encyclopedia of the American Constitution 436 (Leonard W. Levy & Kenneth L. Karst eds., Macmillan Reference USA, 2d ed. 2000).
Food Lion, Inc. v. American Broadcasting Co. (ABC), in 3 Encyclopedia of the American Constitution 1069 (Leonard W. Levy & Kenneth L. Karst eds., Macmillan Reference USA, 2d ed. 2000).
Journalistic Practices, Tort Liability, and the Freedom of the Press, in 3 Encyclopedia of the American Constitution 1438-1439 (Leonard W. Levy & Kenneth L. Karst eds., Macmillan Reference USA, 2d ed. 2000).
Two Unlikely Heros in the Fight for First Amendment Rights, Hum. Rts., Fall 2000, at 14-15.
Preface, 9 Commlaw Conspectus 141-143 (2001).
At Last, Guidance Seems Likely on Affirmative Action, Chron. Higher Educ., Dec. 13, 2002, at B20.
. . . but Litigation Is the Wrong Response, Chron. Higher Educ., Aug. 1, 2003, at B9-B10.
“Muzzles” Awards Remind Us of the Price of Free Speech, Record (Bergen County, N.J.), May 1, 2003, at L11.
What Limits Should Campus Networks Place on Pornography?, Chron. Higher Educ., Mar. 21, 2003, at 20.
Illegal Trafficking in Arms, Drugs, and International Scholarship, Chron. Higher Educ., Nov. 12, 2004, at B9-B10.
Tribute to Professor Robert Hudec, 13 Minn. J. Global Trade 211-214 (2004).
Who Owns Professors’ E-mail Messages? Chron. Higher Educ., June 25, 2004, at B9-B10.
Foreword, in Marc M. Harrold, Observations of White Noise: an ‘Acid Test’ for the First Amendment xi-xiii (iUniverse, 2005).
Freer for Some, More Inhibited for Others, Chron. Higher Educ., Sept. 9, 2005, at B7.
The Infinite Subtleties of the First Amendment, Chron. Higher Educ., Nov. 4, 2005, at B16-B17.
Questioning Ohio’s Loyalty Requirement, Chron. Higher Educ., Dec. 1, 2006, at B24.
4 Challenges to Free Speech in Academe, Chron. Higher Educ., Nov. 2, 2007, at B7-B9.
Colleges Face Ominous New Pressures on Academic Freedom, Chron. Higher Educ., Feb. 8, 2008, at A33-A35.
Today’s Challenges to Academic Freedom: What Do Trustees Need to Know?. Trusteeship, May/June 2008, at 40.
What Not to Say in Class During an Election Season, Chron. Higher Educ., Sept. 19, 2008, at A104.
Dorsen, Norman, in Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law 170-171 (Roger K. Newman, ed., Yale University Press, 2009).
A Fine Legal Mess: When Student Groups Collide With Anti-Bias Policy, Chron. Higher Educ., Nov. 22, 2009, at A76.
Avoiding Controversy over Donors’ Wishes, Trusteeship, Nov./Dec. 2009, at 14-17.
Review of Stanley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time, 36 J.C. &. U.L. 305-311 (2009).
A Justice for All Seasons (reviewing Seth Stern & Stephen Wermiel, Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion), 89 Tex. L. Rev. 1417-1422 (2011).
Keeping the Honor in Honorary Degrees, Trusteeship, July/Aug. 2011, at 19-23.
Video Games as Protected Speech: From Obscurity to Unanimity, Jurist, July 10, 2011.
Why Boards Can’t Ignore Academic Freedom (with Pamela J. Bernard and Thomas A. Gottschalk), Trusteeship, July/Aug. 2011, at 24-29.
Growing Demands for Public Records: Should Boards Respond? (with Rachel Levinson-Waldman), Trusteeship, Jan./Feb. 2012, at 20-24.
When Governance Goes Awry: What Are the Takeaways? (with others), Trusteeship, Sept./Oct. 2012, at 14-23.
Panel Discussion on Recent U.S. Supreme Court Free Speech Decisions & the Implications of These Cases for American Society (with others), 76 Alb. L. Rev. 781-826 (2012/2013).
Updating Board Bylaws--and Beyond, Trusteeship, Mar./Apr. 2013, at 17-21.