A Socialist at Liberty University, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My colleague Russell just posted a great writeup of Ted Kennedy’s appearance at Liberty University in 1983, which I touched on earlier. Meanwhile, another reader, Aaron Hanlon, doesn’t buy all the credit Liberty is getting for its latest hosting of a far-left politician:

Reactions to Bernie Sanders’ recent appearance at Liberty University are really bringing into relief the extent to which it’s politically correct to take positions against political correctness. Christina Hoff Sommers, a regular sentinel when Social Justice Warriors advance, claims Sanders got better treatment at Liberty than she did at Oberlin, while Barack Obama weighed in obliquely by speaking out yesterday against “coddled and protected” college students.  These two aren’t typically in sync politically, but neither are liberal college professors, Jerry Seinfeld, and U.S. conservatives all able to agree on much, save the scourge of political correctness.  

As an event, Sanders’ reception at Liberty University feels like validation for those who see the biggest dangers to free speech and intellectual rigor coming from the left, particularly its margins.  But Anti-P.C. Warriors responding to Sanders at Liberty are taking a page from the SJW playbook they’re most critical of: proceeding with a narrative that fits their political objectives without allowing for an assessment of context.

Sommers, for example, may well have witnessed better treatment of Sanders at Liberty than she had at Oberlin, where she was ill-received as a guest speaker; but that’s precisely because at Oberlin, unlike at Liberty, students have the freedom to protest, which includes the freedom to learn by making mistakes. Liberty’s students were required to attend Sanders’ talk, a nice gesture that, genuine or not, gives an outward impression of tolerance for dissenting views. 

If we look at the evidence for how Liberty tolerates dissenting views on the other 364 days in the year for its students—the context, that is—we see that Liberty students are bound by curfew, dress codes, speech codes, and prohibitions against R-rated movies, offensive or un-Christian music, and intimate romantic contact beyond hand-holding (hand-holding is, curiously, the metaphor we so often use to describe the coddling and intellectual stifling of college students).  

Thus, it’s one thing to point out Liberty’s mixed history of handling dissent to mitigate the cheers for the welcome Liberty showed Sanders; but that’s still comparing apples and wrenches. How an institution treats unpopular guest speakers is a matter of diplomacy (and there are certainly ways to fail at diplomacy); how an institution treats its students is a more direct representation of its attitudes toward freedom of speech and thought.

The subtext of so many flattering responses to Liberty’s reception of Sanders is that the ironically named institution is ‘more free’ than the typical US college or university.  The context proves that’s far from the case.