Liberty University Derecognizes College Democrats

By on May 26, 2009

FIRE has received a large number of e-mails asking for our take on the recent derecognition by Liberty University of its chapter of the College Democrats. For those who don’t know, last week saw reports that Liberty Universitya private, evangelical Christian university founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwellhad determined that the campus chapter of the College Democrats could not be an official organization at Liberty because of its affiliation with the national Democratic Party. Mark Hine, Liberty’s vice president of student affairs, explained the decision in an e-mail to the campus club, saying that its affiliation with the national Democratic Party was unacceptable because

The Democratic Party platform is contrary to the mission of Liberty University 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.)

Hine later elaborated in a statement to the press:

Among other things, Liberty University stands for the sanctity of human life. The loss of human life through abortion is a great tragedy and we cannot remain silent when the political policies or politicians themselves promote the destruction of innocent human life.

While those who are members of the LU Democratic Club are well intentioned and honorable, the platform and policies of the national Democratic Party and the candidates supported by that party, and thus the student organization itself, are inconsistent with the mission of the University.

Later, Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty’s president, indicated that Liberty actually was open to having a Democratic club on campus, but that it may not be affiliated with the national Democratic Party. As the Lynchburg News & Advance reported:

"That club still has the right to exist," Falwell said, although it cannot use the university’s name in its activities.

"They still can meet on campus," in certain rooms, he said. "There is absolutely no animosity at all toward any of these kids.

"They are good, Christian kids who sit with me at ball games. I just hope they find a pro-life family organization to affiliate with so they can be endorsed by Liberty again."

The question everyone has been asking FIRE is this: Can Liberty University do this? The answer is yes.

Why is it that Liberty is within its rights to ban its College Democrats from having a formal relationship with the national party? When FIRE considers this issue, we first look to see if the university is public or private. Because of the First Amendment, a public university could never ban such a relationship, but Liberty is a private and religious university. For private universities, we turn to the stated mission and policies of the university itself to see if the university advertises itself as an institution that respects free speech and whether its policies are in accord with that promise. The vast majority of private institutions do hold themselves out as protecting free speech, so when they betray their promises, FIRE objects.

However, our evaluation of Liberty University indicates that Liberty is actually quite open and straightforward about its values, and respect for unfettered freedom of expression does not appear to be among them. For instance, in the "About Liberty" section of its website, the university lists the following among its ten "distinctive" attributes:

4. An uncompromising doctrinal statement, based upon an inerrant Bible, a Christian worldview beginning with belief in biblical Creationism, an eschatological belief in the pre-millennial, pre-tribulational coming of Christ for all of His Church, dedication to world evangelization, an absolute repudiation of "political correctness," a strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise.

5. Behavioral standards which include the prohibition of drug, alcohol and tobacco use, coed residence halls, and sexual promiscuity.

6. A modest dress code, reasonable curfews and respect for authority.

[...]

10. Required attendance at convocations and chapels three times weekly. Our student body also attends church services weekly, although church attendance is voluntary. A perpetual spirit of revival pervades the campus.

There is no mention here of free speech or freedom of association. In fact, these public commitments to a very specific set of religious and political views should make it abundantly clear to all would-be Liberty students that if they decide to attend Liberty, they are agreeing to abide by a clearly delineated set of rules that will limit their ability to engage in the freedom of expression and association they would enjoy at other schools. Like Bard College or Brigham Young University, Liberty has made an institutional choice that certain values are more important than freedom of expression or association. At Liberty, those values are largely defined by selected tenets of Christian evangelicalism. At BYU, the Mormon faith informs conduct rules. And at Bard, students know that once enrolled, they are entering "an inclusive environment in which freedom of expression is balanced with a respectful standard of dialogue." Because each of these private schools explicitly privileges values other than freedom of expression, FIRE has designated each one as "Not Rated" in our Spotlight database of speech policies on campus. As we explain:

Of course, some private institutionssuch as religious collegeshave particular missions that they believe require restrictions on speech. When a private university states clearly and consistently that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE does not rate that university. However, FIRE will still record the restrictions on speech at those institutions so that students can have a better understanding of the environment in which they will be educated.

As evidenced by the "About Liberty" page on Liberty’s website, Liberty is unquestionably one such private institution.

Free speech and freedom of association also do not seem to appear in The Liberty Way (PDF), Liberty University’s student code of conduct, which contains Liberty’s very strict dress code and behavioral standards. (For instance, "attendance at a dance" is a punishable offense.) It does not appear to FIRE that a reasonable student attending Liberty University would expect to enjoy the same freedom of expression and association that he or she would enjoy on a public campus or simply outside of college. It’s not that difficult to "know before you go" to Liberty University.

Part of what appears to be driving Liberty’s decision on this matter is its apparent belief that it cannot fulfill its mission if its students are perceived to be using Liberty’s name to advocate beliefs that Liberty itself rejects. Most universities are careful to state that recognized but independent student groups do not necessarily reflect the values of the institution. Liberty University, however, appears unwilling to make this distinction.

There are major perils in this approach. Since Liberty must apparently approve the mission of all of its student groups, it is safe to assume that the university also endorses those missions, therefore placing part of the university’s message in the hands of students. And since students are often not very careful about what they say or how they say it, they have the power to make Liberty University look very bad. For instance, if a group began to espouse racist views, and Liberty University did not immediately derecognize that group, one would be entitled to assume that the university condones the views expressed.

The other, more fundamental concern with derecognizing the College Democrats is that it makes it clear that Liberty University is not a "free marketplace of ideas" where all ideas can be discussed, argued, and advocated on an equitable basis. A great deal of the reputation and the perception of legitimacy of most universities depends on that university being seen as a place where the best and truest ideas and scholarship can win out in each person’s mind and conscience, no matter whether or not such ideas prove to be popular or acceptable to those in power. Liberty University has determined that some viewpoints are simply unacceptable on its campus. Therefore, any truth that might be found by means of vigorous debate of these ideas will most likely not be brought to light at Liberty University, thereby damaging intellectual discourse on that campus.

Presumably, Liberty is willing to make this tradeoff because of its religious beliefsbut the university should recognize that it is a tradeoff. The degrees Liberty issues its graduates will lack credibility with certain audiences because Liberty has made impossible a truly free and open debate about issues like abortion, socialism, creationism, and so on. Liberty’s students deserve to know that, too, before they make a choice to attend.

It’s important to recognize that while one may believe that Liberty students are losing out by not attending a school that allows disparate views on campus, Liberty students made the choice to attend such a school for themselves, as is their right. Because Liberty so clearly styles itself as a unique institutionas is its right, as an exercise of freedom of associationLiberty’s College Democrats may be disappointed to be denied recognition, but they shouldn’t be surprised. After all, they knew that Liberty is a university that restricts speech in the interest of other values.