Free speech and free inquiry are in bad shape on college campuses. You might hope that things would be better on avowedly Christian campuses, but if Whitworth University is any indication, they aren’t.

On April 12, Whitworth’s student government voted 9-4 to deny a conservative group’s request to invite Chinese dissident Xi Van Fleet to speak at the university in Spokane, Washington. Van Fleet, now a Virginia resident, escaped Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and frequently criticizes ideas such as critical race theory and hecklers’ vetoes that, in her view, mirror it.

The minutes from the Whitworth student government meeting are publicly available online, so we can see exactly why the students refused to let Van Fleet on campus.

Nick Yochum was the first student representative to object to Van Fleet. Yochum complained that “his constituents” who are “people of color [and] identify as LGBTQIA+” were “very concerned” with Van Fleet’s criticism of woke culture on Twitter. Students were especially concerned that she compared student mobs who shout down speakers with Mao’s Red Guards and Hitler’s brownshirts.

The president of the conservative group on the Whitworth campus, Grace Stiger, who is also a student senator, defended the invitation on the grounds that “a lot of people don’t know a lot about the Cultural Revolution” in China from 1966 to 1976 and “that’s important to learn about.”

Yochum responded by suggesting that the conservative group, Turning Point USA, should discuss only conservative economic policy. He even seemed to suggest that Turning Point deceived the student government when it applied for a club charter.

“When you were first chartering,” Yochum said to Stiger, “it seem[ed] to be [about] a lot of conservative and right-wing economics talk.”

But to Yochum, nothing in Van Fleet’s criticism of woke culture “has any sort of regard or relation to economic policy or conservative economic ideas, even when talking about things like communism.”

Stiger responded that Turning Point USA should not be forced to talk only about conservatives’ views on economics. She appealed to Whitworth’s commitment to civil discourse and to the value of hearing from those we may disagree with.

Her appeal fell on deaf ears.

Niraj Pandey, a student senator, expressed concern about inviting someone who would “equivocate [sic] programs or ideals that has [sic] welcomed us into the United States and celebrates our diversity, to communism and in some thinking, fascism.”

If you’re unsure of what that means, you’re in good company.

Pandey also agreed with Yochum that Turning Point should stick to discussing conservative economics and suggested it could do that just as well by replacing Van Fleet with Whitworth history professor Anthony Clark.

(Disclosure: Anthony Clark did not live through China’s Cultural Revolution).

Still, Pandey concluded that “when I try to look at [Van Fleet’s] ethos of where she is coming from besides her valuable personal experience, I couldn’t really find anything.” 

Whatever that means.

Katelynn Diaz, another student senator, complained that Van Fleet’s Twitter posts seem “like a lot of bold claims not backed up by anything.”

“Feels like someone using a platform to sway thinking a little bit,” Diaz said.

Imagine that: A conservative using Twitter to influence the thinking of others. Precisely what many college students fear most.

Jamie Gassman, club coordinator on the Whitworth campus, provided the assembly with a “general reminder” that “our goal here is not to bring someone that is harmful, and make sure students feel safe.” She conceded that “civil discourse is also needed and important,” but “we need to vote based on safety and comfortability.”

A student identified only as Alex, who isn’t listed as a member of student government, spoke up “as a queer constituent” to say that Van Fleet’s “hateful views” could affect him.

Stiger again tried to appeal to free speech, saying, “Civil discourse is what we say we stand for, so I hope that’s considered.”

It wasn’t.

Pandey jumped in again to ask, “Is there any chance to bring in a speaker that doesn’t equivocate [sic] certain things to communism but has the lived experience?”

Pandey said that “it only makes sense to have someone who doesn’t shares [sic] those views but can also talk about their experience in the Cultural Revolution.”  

Translation: You should find another speaker who lived through China’s Cultural Revolution but isn’t offensive to liberals.

Stiger explained that it wasn’t possible given how long it takes to find a guest speaker.

Georgia Goff, student body president, wondered if there would be a Q&A session and if it was “possible to have a moderator shooting down inappropriate questions.” Stiger said yes, and Goff ended the discussion.

Nevertheless, Katie Chilcote, another student senator, added her 2 cents that Van Fleet doesn’t stand for the “types of communities” that “are important in recognizing.”

The vote was 9-4 against inviting Van Fleet, with two abstentions.

The Whitworth student government’s viewpoint-based censorship is somewhat surprising given that the college is avowedly Christian (although thoroughly captured by woke dogma) and maintains a strong-sounding commitment to free speech.

But what is even more surprising is that the school’s administration has delegated total power to the student government to veto speakers. What good does it do for the university administrators to publish a free speech statement if the students aren’t bound by it and have the power to censor speakers with impunity?

Early Monday morning, I reached out to the president of Whitworth University, Scott McQuilkin, by email and asked him the following questions:

  1. Who in the Whitworth administration made the decision to give the student government veto power over speakers?
  2. Do you support that arrangement?
  3. Will you take any action to reverse the student government’s decision?
  4. Do you support banning speakers based on their views?
  5. Do you think that viewpoint suppression is consistent with your school’s professed Christianity?
  6. Do you think that diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, is consistent with your professed Christianity?
  7. Do you think your school is inclusive for conservatives or others committed to free expression?

McQuilkin has yet to respond.


>>> Update: Shortly after publication, Whitworth University’s media relations manager sent me this statement, reproduced in full here:

Whitworth University has a strong commitment to freedom of speech and civil discourse. We also have a long history of empowering our students to make significant decisions and take responsibility for those decisions. Under our student government bylaws, student clubs seeking to bring an outside speaker to campus must get approval from the democratically elected student government assembly. The assembly, in a divided vote, declined to approve the invitation for Xi Van Fleet to speak, but there are allowances for the sponsoring club to appeal and/or for the speaker to be sponsored by a department on campus. The student club has been made aware of these other avenues that may be used to bring the speaker to campus. 

Hundreds of speakers, representing a broad spectrum of perspectives, are hosted by the university, academic departments, faculty, students, and student organizations over the course of the year. Whitworth’s goal is to challenge all our students to engage with diverse perspectives, to ask tough questions, and to think hard about what they believe and why they believe it. Along with our commitment to free expression, we also are committed to the sometimes competing goal of equipping our students with genuine agency to help them become responsible decision-makers and not just good rule-followers as they enter adulthood. That goal is compromised if we make all decisions for our students.  

A couple of things are worth noting here. The first is that Whitworth University’s media relations manager linked to the same free speech statement that I included above and which, again, does not bind the student government.

It’s also worth pointing out Whitworth’s curious idea that free expression and the formation of genuine agency are “sometimes competing goals.” That is not an intuitive proposition, and I suspect that the school’s definition of “genuine agency” is restricted or incomplete. I would not be surprised if the university took the position that “genuine” agency would refrain from speech that certain identity groups consider “harmful.”

As for the final point that Whitworth students should be more than mere rule-followers, that’s correct. But it seems a non sequitur here. Ultimately what happened in that student government meeting is that a majority of student representatives followed woke social rules to suppress a minority that they don’t agree with. That is not “responsible” decision-making. It’s cowardice.

Disappointing behavior from students at a Christian college, and a disappointing response from the administration.

This commentary article was updated within three hours of publication to include Whitworth Univeristy’s response.

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