Today, a Baylor University group called Young Americans for Freedom is hosting an on-campus talk by Matt Walsh, a political commentator and blogger. Walsh’s event is titled “The War on Reality: Why the Left Has Set Out to Redefine Life, Gender and Marriage.”
Walsh’s previously expressed views have made him a controversial figure. Among other things, he believes that American academia have been overrun with feminists and that women should not be in positions of authority over men. Because of his hostility to lesbians, gay men and transgendered people, more than two thousand people signed a petition urging the university to cancel his appearance, asserting that it will cause harm to those he attacks.
Though I oppose Walsh’s views, I did not sign that petition because I think Walsh should speak on campus. I’m glad to see that Baylor, finally, is encouraging open speech and debate over LGBT issues and inclusion on campus. It’s about time! And, of course, as an academic institution that has ambitions to be respected as a top-tier research university, Baylor must allow the sponsorship of speakers opposed to Walsh’s view and recognize organizations that would sponsor those speakers. If the school has a whit of integrity, it must now, at long last, grant official recognition to LGBT groups on campus. I have joined hundreds of others in signing a letter which urges just that.
Free speech is essential not only to democracy but to education. Students need to hear opposing voices and discern their own views within that tumult — that is how we come of age as learners and citizens. For too long, Baylor has stifled that process on some of the most important issues that face our society, fearful that students may reach conclusions that challenge conservative conventions. That reflects a striking cowardice; after all, if conservative conventions are “right,” those who assert them should have the guts to allow them to be debated in the context of free speech. Their need to control who may speak reflects fear, not strength.
I have a pretty good sense of how this has worked. In 2017, I was invited to speak at Baylor, then disinvited. Part of the reason for the reversal, I was told, was a piece I had written in this newspaper which argued for integrity in how Baylor treated LGBT people and those who were remarried after divorce. Since the closest Jesus came to condemning homosexuality (Matthew 19:4-9) was in the context of directly condemning remarriage after divorce, it would seem that if an institution was to rely on the Bible to discriminate against LGBT people, it would need to treat remarried people the same way to claim a consistent biblical view. It wasn’t an argument away from the Gospels but from within it. Yet mine was a voice Baylor wanted to stifle. At that time, they preferred silence on the issue to discussion.
Now they invite the discussion. And perhaps this time they will do so with integrity and allow both sides a voice and a platform.
There was a legend, possibly even true, about the renowned dean of Yale Law School, Guido Calabresi. While I was a student there, a black student association invited one of Louis Farrakhan’s lieutenants to come speak to a classroom of students. Because of Farrakhan’s reputation for anti-Semitism, many of the Jewish students were opposed to the invitation and were picketing the speaker’s arrival at the front doors.
Dean Calabresi approached the chanting throng. “Are you here to welcome our guest?” he asked. The protesters explained that they did not want him to speak.
“But why,” Calabresi asked them, “would you deny yourselves the opportunity to tell him he is wrong?”
And with that, like the people about to stone the adulteress in John 8, they quietly drifted off. They did come to the talk, and they did engage the speaker, and we all became a little bit wiser in the process.
There is nothing wrong with Baylor hosting controversial speakers and the discussion of difficult moral and political issues; Baylor has had too little of that. But now that it has crossed that threshold and allowed one side to that discussion, it must act like a university. It is time to recognize LGBT groups and to allow all sides to be heard.