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The Invisible Free Speech Crisis

Why is there so much focus on no-platforming at elite universities, when hundreds of colleges across America regularly suppress speech?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shane Claiborne is not an imposing presence. A Christian pacifist, he’s known within evangelical circles for his opposition to the death penalty, for his embrace of immigrants and refugees, and for helping found an intentional community in Philadelphia called the Simple Way. He’s a regular visitor to Christian college campuses. On Friday, Claiborne, working alongside a prominent roster of Christian leaders that included the Rev. William J. Barber, held a revival in Lynchburg, Virginia. Lynchburg being the home of Liberty University, Claiborne reached out to Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., to invite him to come pray with fellow Christians. But this weekend, Claiborne reported that Falwell had refused his invitation. Further, Liberty’s campus police department threatened him with arrest if he set a toe on campus.

What’s so dangerous about a Christian pacifist? Claiborne did not come to Lynchburg to burn the Falwell family’s city upon a hill. In fact, he shares a number of positions with Liberty’s leadership, including on abortion. It appears that Falwell’s objection to Claiborne stems from the latter’s commitment to non-violence; he is set to publish a new book making the Christian case for gun control. Pacifism, as Relevant magazine recently noted, does not feature prominently in Falwell’s Christianity. He opened a shooting range on campus and once told students, “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those (radicalized) Muslims before they walked in.”

The no-platforming of Shane Claiborne inspired no outrage outside the evangelical world. There were no columns about it in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or New York magazine. Bill Maher has not invited dissenting students onto his television show, even though they exist. Erin Covey, a Liberty journalism major, told Religion News Service on Saturday that Falwell himself blocked her from covering Claiborne’s revival for the student newspaper. “I do think that currently the level of oversight we have does make it difficult to pursue the accurate journalism that we’re taught in classes,” she told RNS.

There are important differences between the no-platforming of controversial speakers at secular universities and the wholesale suppression of speech at Christian universities, starting with the latter’s competing claim of freedom of religion. But Falwell’s actions violate the purpose of even a Christian university, which retains a mission to develop the intellect. There is a free speech crisis on campus, but it’s not at Yale or Middlebury. It’s at Liberty University and schools like it.

Liberty isn’t the first Christian college to ban Shane Claiborne. My alma mater, Cedarville University in Ohio, committed a similar act in 2008. Administrators rescinded Claiborne’s speaking invitation after a clutch of fundamentalist bloggers complained that his presence on campus was further evidence that the school had drifted from its conservative identity. I understood this to be a facetious claim at the time: Cedarville, as I knew it, restricted student dress, speech, and religious expression. Students couldn’t wear jeans to class. Male students couldn’t let their hair grow past a certain length, and we could only attend churches belonging to certain denominations. Cedarville was conservative enough.

Covey’s woes even resemble my own struggles as a student journalist at Cedarville. A censor in the public relations department monitored the content of our student newspaper, just as the university monitored our online activities. The censorship became so strict that we eventually stopped publication of the newspaper in protest.

But Cedarville taught us that there are worse violations to suffer, even for aspiring journalists. Our student handbook offered no guidance on how to report sexual assault, but it did tell us that we could be expelled for any form of non-marital sexual activity. The LGBT students I knew kept silent under the pressing fear of expulsion and subsequent rejection by their families and communities, which could even result in homelessness. Queer students and allies talked off-campus, in coffee shops and in apartments; we looked over our shoulders, we whispered. Stifling, totalizing fear: That’s what it feels like to lack free speech.

We all knew what we had signed up for when we paid our deposits, or so conservatives reminded us at the time. This is both technically true and irrelevant in practice. In reality, the children of insular subcultures don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to academics. For many of my classmates, Cedarville or a school like it was the only guaranteed route to a higher education.

Nothing has improved since I graduated. In 2013, the school fired its two philosophy professors months after they co-wrote an editorial explaining their opposition to the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney. At the same time, the school ended the philosophy major itself. Administrators claimed that they made these decisions due to a lack of interest in philosophy, and not to political differences. Months later, the school fired the same administrator who’d initially invited Claiborne to campus back in 2008.

That same year I filed a Title IX complaint against Cedarville over its handling of sexual assault accusations. I filed at age 25, as an alumna, because when I was 22 I had no idea the law afforded me certain rights, even at a place like Cedarville. I know very well what it is like to feel like you cannot speak, to have nightmares about silence, to wrestle with it like Jacob once wrestled the Lord. Everyone wants to talk about who gets to speak on campus now. The question is a worthy one, considered on its own. Who does get to speak on campus? It depends on who you are, and where you are located. Often, it depends on power.

There are many who argue, in the pages of this country’s most respected periodicals, that this power lies with the intolerant left. But the evidence of real, widespread speech suppression shows it lies elsewhere, on the right. This, in turn, suggests that the ostensible champions of free speech are more interested in criticizing campus identity politics than in protecting speech.

There are more than one thousand religious colleges and universities in the United States, and they are not all alike. Schools like Georgetown University, which combine a religious outlook with relative tolerance for dissent, sit at one end. At the other sit schools like Cedarville or the Franciscan University of Steubenville, which fired an adjunct professor in 2017 for being insufficiently pro-life. The professor in question actually is pro-life, but had criticized President Donald Trump and complained about “the patriarchy police” in a Facebook post. She could commiserate with Cedarville’s former philosophy faculty, or with Larycia Hawkins, whose forced resignation from Wheaton College in Illinois did make national news.

In the eyes of Wheaton’s leadership, Hawkins committed a double crime. She took a photograph in hijab, as an act of solidarity with American Muslims. Then in a Facebook post, she called Muslims her “brothers and sisters,” a phrase evangelicals reserve for fellow Christians, and said Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.” Wheaton applies a comparatively liberal philosophy to its education; students have formed left-leaning and feminist groups and there’s a measure of intellectual diversity visible in its faculty. But these factors did not protect Hawkins. Neither did the erudite defense she submitted to Wheaton administrators.

The punishment that Wheaton handed down to Hawkins is far more extreme than what student protesters have demanded on secular campuses. Charles Murray continues to sell his debunked pseudoscientific theories about race and Christina Hoff Sommers still occupies her perch at the American Enterprise Institute, while Hawkins lost her job and her place in an academic community she had inhabited for nine years. Liberty, meanwhile, threatened Claiborne with arrest. Students, we should recall, do not generally set university policy. Their rebellions are rebellions against power.

Faculty firings are a particularly visible form of repression, but Christian colleges have also made good on the sorts of threats Liberty made to Claiborne. During the 2006-2007 academic year, Soulforce, a LGBT rights group that protested discriminatory admissions policies at Christian colleges and service academies, tested the limits of Christian tolerance. Cedarville allowed Soulforce’s activists on campus, but Liberty’s campus police arrested them. So did Brigham Young’s, and so did Baylor’s.

Students often bear the weight of a religious university’s restrictions, to the point of expulsion. I am not the first woman to keep quiet about an assault that occurred on the campus of a Christian school. In 2016, students at Brigham Young complained that the Mormon university’s honor code, which bans non-marital sex, regularly became “a weapon” in the hands of their abusers.

As religious institutions, Christian campuses are able to moderate student life as they see fit. While schools that censor student newspapers or ban certain clubs do violate free speech, these violations are permissible under the overarching principle of religious freedom. But there is a complicating factor: Each of the schools I’ve described in this piece are accredited institutions that accept Pell grants from incoming students. They’re also non-profits. When they restrict speech, whether by disinviting speakers or by expelling queer students, they do so with taxpayer assistance. On this subject, the nation’s free speech warriors are silent. No one debates the wisdom of allowing Liberty to benefit from Pell grants, but maybe we should.

Free speech warriors say that overzealous students are cramping academia’s intellectual environment by silencing the speech of those with whom they disagree. It’s true that silence can be dangerous. Students and others on the left should question themselves. They should ask if they’ve gone too far—if they are exercising discernment, to steal a phrase from the faith of my fathers. But the conversation is so skewed to elite schools and to the defense of the already-powerful that it does not fight silence at all. It reinforces silence. It allows real violations to fester and proliferate.

Jerry Falwell Jr. isn’t some random evangelical but a prominent figure with the ear of the president of the United States. Christian colleges train the next generation of the religious right, and enrich the current generation with speaking gigs and lucrative positions. Their policies have serious political implications, and they reveal how far the right-wing will go to preserve its doctrinal purity. The left isn’t the real threat to free speech, not on campus, and not anywhere else.