By Sabrina Conza
Imagine you decide to attend a college that promises “freedom of expression for its students” in line with the “Constitutional understandings of free expression.” Now imagine that once you get there, you face censorship, and learn that your university’s free expression commitment is no more than words on paper.
That’s not okay. But unfortunately, that’s what happened to members of Whitworth University’s Turning Point USA student group. The university’s student government – a body granted authority by the university – denied the student group’s request to host Chinese dissident Xi Van Fleet, citing her comparison of “woke culture” to the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), where I work, wrote Whitworth President Scott McQuilkin urging him to restore the group’s event. As a private Christian university, Whitworth is, of course, not bound by the First Amendment to respect students’ free speech rights. But when a school that claims to be committed to free expression then violates students’ expressive rights, it raises a question of truth in advertising. Whitworth cannot accurately say it is committed to free expression and then shut down dissenting views.
Just a week after the student government denied TPUSA’s event, another student group at Whitworth found itself censored. The university’s Pride Club announced that its Queer Church event had been canceled for not aligning with “the ethos of the university.” In that case, after facing pushback from FIRE and the public, Whitworth quickly and rightly reversed course, allowing the event to go on just days after canceling it.
Whitworth was right to restore Pride Club’s event, but TPUSA’s event remains denied. FIRE wrote Whitworth again, asking it to intervene and allow TPUSA to host Van Fleet.
While Whitworth’s student government – not its administration – denied TPUSA’s event, the student government must do so in a viewpoint-neutral manner. When the university grants its student government the authority to accept or deny events, students must then comply with university policies promising free expression when dealing with expressive events like TPUSA hosting Van Fleet. Otherwise, certain views that student government members find unfavorable will be silenced on campus.
Allowing the suppression of certain ideas would be detrimental to the culture of free expression and the open exchange of ideas at Whitworth – values the university claims to uphold. Whitworth must ensure its free expression commitment has real meaning by allowing TPUSA’s event to take place. It must also ensure its student government does not violate other students’ expressive rights when disfavored or controversial views are expressed.
Sabrina Conza is a program officer at the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought. She lives in Washington, D.C.