Ted Cruz announced his presidential campaign at Liberty University this morning in front of a captive audience of nearly 10,000 students—none of whom had any choice in whether to attend.
That's because all Liberty students are obligated to show up for convocations on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Absenteeism results in "four reprimands and a $10 fine," according to student Daniel Joseph Hayes.
Hayes complained that Cruz's decision to make his announcement at a Liberty U. convocation was "starkly deceptive," since it might appear to outside observers that throngs of students had decided to support Cruz of their own volition. He wrote, according to Bloomberg:
I strongly object to Senator Cruz's choice of venue for the announcement of his 2016 presidential bid: as is well-known by Liberty University students but considerably less well-known by the general public, all students are required to attend convocation every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Sen. Cruz is a friend of the Liberty University administration and has spoken at convocation in the past. As such, he knows that all students are required to be in attendance. I bear no ill will toward Sen. Cruz, but his choice to announce his 2016 presidential bid at convocation at Liberty University is a starkly deceptive one. Should the general public be unaware that all students are required to attend convocation, it would seem to the average viewer (as this will be televised and is already being widely publicized) that 10,000 supporters came to Liberty University to hear Sen. Cruz's announcement. However, every student in attendance has no say in the matter. Students will either attend convocation and lend to the illusion of widespread support for Sen. Cruz, or they will be subject to administrative punishment–specifically, four reprimands and a $10 fine–if they are absent. While Sen. Cruz has every right to run for president and to announce his candidacy, it is a highly deceptive, albeit politically savvy, move on Sen. Cruz's part to make his big announcement here. I do not support this action, and I am not alone in my belief that such deception is wrong.
Nevertheless, students who support somebody other than Cruz found creative ways to make themselves heard. Several wore "Stand with Rand" T-shirts during Cruz's announcement, and the campus's Young Americans for Liberty group canvassed for Paul—who is expected to announce his candidacy next month—before and after the event. Other students used Yik Yak, an anonymous texting app, to voice criticisms of Cruz during the event, according to Business Insider.
While Liberty University, a private organization, is free to compel its students to suffer through whatever soul-crushing campaign announcements it deems perversely essential to their education or moral development, there's still something vexing (to me, anyway) about an institution with "liberty" in its name requiring attendance at a political event. I emailed Liberty's press department to find out whether the university would have actually punished students for skipping the event. If I hear back, I will post an update.
Update: Liberty University released the following statement from President Jerry Falwell:
"Convocation is not a worship service. Convocation is Liberty's educational forum for students to hear from speakers with a wide diversity of viewpoints from all walks of life — entertainment, business, politics, ministry, and more — many of whom are globally respected as experts in their areas. It is no secret that Convocation is held three times a week and attendance is required, just like class is required for students. No one is expected to agree with every speaker on every point. In fact, Convocation speakers do not all line up with traditional Evangelical Christian viewpoints or even Liberty University's doctrinal statement. A fundamental part of the college experience is being exposed to a variety of viewpoints so students can better understand why they hold their own beliefs and be better prepared to defend them. Liberty intentionally gives every student this opportunity to become well-rounded on important matters of faith and culture.
The fact that some students attended the service wearing T-shirts supporting another potential candidate shows that our students are not indoctrinated; they are free — and encouraged — to form their own opinions about what they hear in Convocation and to express it.
I should, however, point out that standing ovations are not required. Students are free to cheer or boo as they see fit. I also think it is irresponsible to take anonymous social media posts and assume that they are students, or are representative of the entire student body.
It fills me with great pride, then, to see that our students consistently provide such a warm atmosphere for every speaker who comes to campus, regardless if they agree with them or not.
Right after Convocation today, a pre-med student, who is a Democrat, came up to me and shared his appreciation for Convocation and how we bring in such a diverse panel of speakers. He said that he appreciated the opportunity to hear from Sen. Cruz so close to his announcement to run for president. He appreciated that Liberty was chosen as a platform for such a prominent moment. The student told me that he enjoyed the speech and even found some common ground with Senator Cruz on many issues."
Watch Cruz's speech below.
(Edit: I initially misattributed Hayes' statement to YAL chapter president Eli McGowan. I also misstated the number of students at the event.)