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. Committed to public service, O'Neil took 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.
O'Neil passed away in 2018.
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The Drudge Case: a Look at Issues in Cyberspace Defamation, 73 Wash. L. Rev. 623-636 (1998).
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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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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).
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Alcohol Advertising on the Air: Beyond the Reach of Government? (Media Institute, 1997).
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Revive News Council to Curb Press, Nat’l L.J., Sept. 22, 1997, at A23.
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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).
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“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.
Who Owns Professors’ E-mail Messages? Chron. Higher Educ., June 25, 2004, at B9-B10.
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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.