Notoriously liberal presidential candidate Bernie Sanders held a campaign event at notoriously conservative Liberty University yesterday, and the temptation to hot-take proved too much for Jonathan Chait to resist:
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) September 14, 2015
This is, of course, absurd.
All students and faculty at Liberty are required to comply with the college’s doctrinal statement, which affirms the inerrancy of the Bible and the imminence of Jesus’s return to earth. Media that contains “lewd lyrics, anti-Christian message, [or] sexual content” is prohibited. Protests and demonstrations are banned from campus, and students are barred from engaging in political activity off-campus that “would contradict or otherwise compromise” the school’s “principles and policies.”
Open to dissenting views? A few years ago Liberty University denied recognition to a campus chapter of the College Democrats, declaring that because Liberty is “pro-life and believes that marriage between one man and one woman provides the best environment for children,” it would “not lend its name or financial support to any student group that advances causes contrary to its mission.” (And that was the cleaned-up PR version of the statement — the original email to the club declared that the Dems were persona non grata because “socialism.”)
Now, Liberty is a private university. It can restrict students’ speech rights pretty much however it wants. But there is not a single liberal campus anywhere in the country that prohibits students from possessing conservative books or movies in the dorms, that requires faculty to affirm their secular beliefs, or that denies recognition to the College Republicans on the basis of the GOP platform.
Liberty University is closed to “dissenting views” in ways that have no parallel whatsoever on the nation’s liberal campuses. There’s just no comparison.
Chait eventually realized that his original claim was unsupportable, so he — in his words — walked it back. But his new position was, if anything, even more ludicrous. As he tweeted:
I’d still say that equivalent scene (right-wing Republican speaking on left-wing campus) would produce outrage, very different scene.
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) September 15, 2015
We don’t have to guess what the scene Chait describes would be like, of course. Contrary to popular stereotype, conservatives speak on liberal campuses all the time. (Google “Santorum campus speech” if you don’t believe me.) And yes, often they’re picketed or booed or challenged in other ways. So why didn’t that happen yesterday?
Because students aren’t allowed to protest at Liberty University.
As the college’s code of conduct says, “student participation in on-campus demonstrations, petitions or picketing is prohibited unless approved by Liberty University administration.” Period. And Liberty’s students couldn’t even protest Sanders’ speech by staying away — attendance at the event was mandatory.
None of this is a secret, of course. The mandate that students attend Sanders’ speech was reported widely in the press, and Chait himself tweeted a screencap of Liberty’s ban on student demonstrations before he sent his final tweet. And anyway, since when is outrage a bad thing? Since when is noisy contestation of political views something to be regretted?
Jonathan Chait’s vision of a campus “open to dissenting views” is one in which high-profile celebrities with ideologies at odds with the student body are invited to speak, and one in which they are not subjected to challenge or disruption when they arrive. It has nothing to do with students’ rights to hold views that dissent from those of the administration, or from those of the larger society. When Chait thinks of free speech, he’s not thinking of the right to rabble-rouse, to confront, to Stick It To The Man. That’s not what free speech means to him.
And so Chait is ultimately no friend of free speech at all. He’s not a defender of the rights of left-liberal students to speak intemperately or aggressively on campus, and as we saw last night he’s no ally of conservative students who might want to do the same. He sees a college administration bringing in a contrarian speaker, forcing students to attend, and banning the expression of dissenting views, and thinks, that’s how a campus should run.
So can we stop pretending that people like Chait are supporters of free expression? Please?