In the latest example of students shutting down views they disagree with on campus, Whitworth University’s student government denied the campus Turning Point USA chapter’s request to invite Chinese dissident Xi Van Fleet to campus because of her criticism of “woke culture.”
Last week, the Associated Students of Whitworth University voted 9-4 to deny TPUSA’s request. Students criticized Van Fleet’s comparison of the spread of “woke” ideas — which they said includes “Black Lives Matter,” “environmental justice,” “latinx,” the LGBT community, and more — to the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China.
Although Whitworth, a private, religious university in Spokane, Washington, is not bound by the First Amendment, Whitworth makes steadfast commitments affirming“freedom of expression for its students, staff and faculty” in line with the “Constitutional understandings of free expression.” It additionally promises that “students are free to express their views . . . on any matter of interest to the student body.”
Whitworth must reverse its student government’s decision and allow Van Fleet to speak on campus.
Given these unambiguous commitments, students will reasonably expect that they can invite even controversial speakers to campus to express views that are not in lockstep with the majority on campus, or the university’s student government. That’s why FIRE wrote Whitworth this week urging it to reverse the denial.
We explained that because the administration has delegated the authority to approve speaker requests to ASWU, its actions must comply with the university’s commitments and policies:
ASWU may not condition speaker approval on the “ideology or the opinion or the perspective of the speaker[.]” Instead, it must make decisions concerning student organizations’ invited speakers on a viewpoint-neutral basis.
We reminded Whitworth that, once it sets the dangerous precedent that some views can be prohibited on campus, it opens the door for students to prevent any number of speakers deemed controversial — including speakers the administration broadly agrees with.
We told Whitworth:
While we appreciate the university’s administration or student government might object to any number of these speakers, it is against this backdrop that Whitworth’s decision to protect freedom of expression must be understood. That commitment obligates the administration to abstain from making decisions about who may speak based on the viewpoints of students, faculty, or speakers, precisely to provide the “breathing space” that freedom of expression requires. When the university’s student government, operating as an extension of the administration, violates these important commitments, Whitworth must step in and correct course.
Van Fleet’s appearance would have included a question-and-answer session, the perfect opportunity for students to ask questions and challenge Van Fleet about her speech or opinions or to express disagreement with her appearance at the school. Whitworth’s free expression commitments allow students to protest or express disagreement with invited speakers’ opinions. However, those commitments preclude students from denying speaking appearances because of the views that may be expressed.
Whitworth must reverse its student government’s decision and allow Van Fleet to speak on campus. FIRE will keep readers updated as we continue to pressure the university to do the right thing and follow through on its commitment to free expression.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).