Campus Free Speech

College Debate Team Comes Out Against Debate

James Madison University's debate team says that "free speech should not extend to requiring us to platform or amplify ideas that are exclusionary, discriminatory, or hostile."


This week, the James Madison University debate team made a surprising announcement for, well, a debate team.

The group condemned an upcoming speech on "transgenderism" by conservative commentator Liz Wheeler, arguing that she is "attempting to antagonize and harass highly at-risk groups like transgender students" and calling on the student group sponsoring the event to revoke their support. While there is a lot to criticize about Wheeler's position on transgender people, it's nonetheless troubling that a student group devoted to debate and "free speech" would so fiercely call for the cancellation of an event based purely on a speaker's political beliefs.

Wheeler's event, hosted by JMU's chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), is set to take place on April 26. The lecture, which has already had to move location due to security concerns, will focus on "the ideology of transgenderism," according to the chapter's social media posts. Soon after the event was announced, many took to social media to express their disapproval and get the university administration to cancel the event.

"Having a woman who spreads hate about trans people come to what is supposed to be a safe space for LGBTQ+ students is sick. jmu is a joke for this," wrote one anonymous Twitter user.

"It is disgusting to see @JMU tout a slogan of 'Be the Change' while allowing a transphobic nut to come to campus and spout harmful lies," one JMU alum tweeted.

Several student and faculty groups also rushed to condemn the event. While many statements simply stated the group's support of transgender students, several made oblique calls for the university administration to intervene, presumably to stop the event.

For example, Madison Equality, an LGBT student group, released a statement arguing in support of "meeting those who disagree with us with patience and empathy." Then it called for students to "make emails and calls to University Administration." Another group added that "a speaker who sits on a platform of hate speech has no place on this campus" and called on students to "remind James Madison University administration about what our expectations of them are."

Despite the backlash, the university administration has stood firmly in support of the event. "That is at the heart of America," Tim Miller, JMU's vice president for student affairs, told a student publication on Thursday. "I can disagree with the speaker, I can disagree with people protesting, but it's our job to provide the forum, both should be able to exist in tandem." As a public university, the school is legally barred from canceling student events based on the speaker's political beliefs.

The JMU debate team's own statement condemning the event, which it released on Wednesday, is a confusing one.

The group says it "stands for free speech, open dialogue, and argument between different perspectives on campus," adding that "no person should be prohibited from expressing their viewpoints in the public sphere." However, the group also wrote that "a general climate of free speech should not extend to requiring us to platform or amplify ideas that are exclusionary, discriminatory, or hostile."

It's unclear how this applies to Wheeler's speech. No one is being "forced" to platform her—she was invited willingly by a student club, which presumably wants to hear what she has to say. Members of JMU's debate team—and anyone else at the university—are perfectly free to simply not attend the event.

The statement was also accompanied by a caption encouraging YAF to cancel the event themselves: "We oppose the support given by groups on the JMU campus to bring Liz Wheeler to speak and we encourage any group offering her support to cease that support immediately."

The statement was quickly met with criticism online, with many pointing out the inherent contradictions in a debate club arguing that some political issues shouldn't be debated.

"This is pretty ironic. From the debate team at a public university named after Federalist Papers author and architect of the US Constitution James Madison," tweeted local journalist Dan McDermott.

"Pitching a fit like this one only backfires," added Reason's Billy Binion. "It makes that speaker a martyr and gets them even more attention. If you don't like someone who is coming to a venue near you, then you should ignore them."

As Binion points out, while there's plenty to criticize about Wheeler's positions on transgender rights—she recently wrote that "'Trans' people are pawns the Marxists are using"—calling for censorship is not only an unprincipled approach, but it's also an ineffective one.

With that in mind, instead of calling for the cancellation of Wheeler's lecture, members of JMU's debate team should try engaging with—and attempting to refute—her ideas.

Huh, what's that called again?