Errant Liberty

Peter Wood

Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia last week de-recognized its chapter of Young Democrats.  Liberty, an evangelical institution headed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr. withdrew its recognition of the group as a campus club on the grounds that the group’s connection to the Democratic Party put it at odds with the University’s moral principles. 

The Young Democrats Association (YDA) president David Hardt quickly moved to circulate a web-petition to protect the “First Amendment rights” of YDA members. 

I doubt that Liberty University crossed any legal or Constitutional lines in its decision. It is a private university that is abundantly clear about its rules, preferences, and prohibitions, and the areas where it reserves the right to act against the expression of ideas it deems contrary to its teachings. In this sense, it is hard to imagine a First Amendment claim on behalf of YDA prevailing in court.

But if Liberty U was within its rights, the decision was still unwise. It was unwise for three reasons: it answers a challenge to Liberty University’s positions with fearfulness and timidity;   it erodes the claims of the University to offer an education that prepares its students to play a constructive part in the larger debates of our society; and it cedes precious ground to the numerous college officials—mostly on the left—who are always thinking of good reasons for forestalling debate.

Fearfulness and timidity. Liberty University would set a much better example if it demonstrated disciplined tolerance for views it regards as mistaken.   Such tolerance does not forfeit the University’s ability to make its case that those ideas are false, misleading, or morally dangerous. In his letter to YDA conveying the University’s decision, Mark Hine, vice president for student affairs, explained:

Even though this club may not support the more radical planks of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party is still the parent organization of the club on campus. The Democratic Party Platform is contrary to the mission of LU and to Christian doctrine (supports abortion, federal funding of abortion, advocates repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, promotes the "LGBT" agenda, Hate Crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc). The candidates this club supports uphold the Platform and implement it. The candidates supported are directly contrary to the mission of LU. By using LU or Liberty University and Democrat in the name, the two are associated and the goals of both run in opposite directions.

Withdrawing recognition from a student group on these grounds conveys the impression that the University is fearful that these ideas will spread unless strictly quarantined.   That seems, if nothing else, psychologically naïve. To rule that the ideas are so dangerous that their supposed advocates must be disbanded grants those ideas far more allure than they might otherwise have. It is also to confess weakness on the part of the University—as though it is unable to support its own views or counter contrary views except by censorship. 

Preparing students for the larger debates.   Students who choose to attend a sectarian college opt for an education that treats certain theological positions as foundational and often teaches settled views on some public controversies as well.   How well does an education at such a college prepare a student to take part in our pluralistic society?   It depends.    Knowing exactly where you stand and why can be an effective position at the beginning of a debate.   But if that’s all you know, the debate will be short and you’ll usually lose. 

Public life in a democratic society requires participants who have mastered the arts of listening carefully, recognizing strong arguments on the other side, seeing the weaknesses in one’s own points, reformulating, and thinking again. No matter how well students master a college’s official positions, unless they also learn how to engage critics, they are ill-prepared for public life. A university that hustles dissenters off campus or finds other ways to hush them is doing no real service to its students.   To the contrary, it is turning them into sitting ducks. 

These days, American higher education, whether sectarian or secular, seems to have a very hard time finding its balance on this matter. We have seen leftist vigilantes swarm on many campuses to prevent conservatives from speaking; we have secular university administrators who stand by haplessly while rowdy majorities screaming about “justice” inflict gross injustices; and we have some sectarian colleges that respond to the coarseness of contemporary America by cocooning themselves.

Surely the better path is for colleges and universities to foster a civilized order in which all sides of a debate can get a thoughtful hearing. That doesn’t require a university such as Liberty to compromise its principles. 

Ceding ground.   The National Association of Scholars finds itself these days in an almost perpetual state of alarm over the eagerness of college and university officials to trample legitimate expression of dissenting opinions. Typically these officials announce high-minded motives. At Virginia Tech, officials want to promote diversity and intellectual inclusiveness. Toward those worthy ends, they are ready to impose ideological litmus tests on faculty members for appointment, promotion, and tenure.   The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education has called on college presidents—and over 600 have heeded the call—to use a “climate action litmus test” in hiring. The University of Delaware famously turned its dorms into re-education camps to “transform” students out of their bourgeois attitudes.   A gang of anarchists at The New School drew a sufficiently uncritical response from the faculty that the president decided to call it quits.   As often happens these days, the protestors weren’t seeking the right to be heard; they were seeking to silence views they didn’t want voiced. 

These are all sorry abuses of the principles of rational debate and openness to fair argument that ought to characterize the university. Most of the cases, though not all of them, arise on campuses dominated by the political left.   And the left indeed has evolved elaborate rationalizations for abusing freedom of thought, free speech, and academic freedom.   We are used to hearing variations of that ‘60s Marxist exegete Herbert Marcuse to the effect that liberal tolerance is repressive. Or the updated Michel Foucault version of the mantra that “objectivity” is just a mask of power.   Or that those who call for civility on campus are agents of a conservative ideological hegemony who really want to preserve racial, sexual, and other kinds of inequality. The tides of self-deluding nonsense roll on. 

Liberty University, in its decision to de-recognize the Young Democrats Association, throws away the principled argument that the university should be a place where all views are welcome, provided they are advanced rationally and in a civil manner.   Liberty University is already a self-marginalized institution and may not much care that it has just reinforced the image of the Christian right as narrow-minded and intellectually feeble.    But it ought to care. If Liberty University wants to influence the larger culture and not just preach to the choir, it needs to take the high ground. That means modeling robust intellectual debate, engaging people it disagrees with, and teaching students how to respond thoughtfully to a variety of ideas.   As a first step, Liberty University would be well-advised to reconsider its decision to give the Young Democrats the heave-ho.

UPDATE 11:30 A.M. We just received word that Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. has issued a press release to dispel accusations put forth through media coverage of this incident.

UPDATE 7/24/09.  At the end of June, Liberty University changed its student group policy so that it de-recognized all student groups. Now the groups are seen as unofficial clubs that can meet on campus but will not receive University funding. This seems to solve the problem with de-recognizing the Young Democrats, who now share their status with the Young Rebublicans and all other student groups on campus.

Read the press release

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