Walk the Walk, Jerry

I’m a Progressive Muslim. Will Liberty University Let Me Speak on Its Campus?

Conservative Ben Shapiro will speak at UC-Berkeley this week. I support that. So why won’t Jerry Falwell Jr. respond to my inquiries about speaking at Liberty?

This Thursday conservative Ben Shapiro will finally speak at UC Berkeley after cancellations, outrage, and much victimhood. I’m as progressive as they come and that’s why I’ve publicly defended Shapiro speaking at that school. And not because it’s the law or based on the Constitution, but because a free exchange of ideas is vital for our democracy to endure.

I bet many conservatives would agree with my view that freedom of expression must be sacrosanct. But despite that, I can’t speak at Liberty University—the conservative Virginia college headed by Jerry Falwell Jr. And yes, as a lawyer I fully understand that I have no constitutional right to speak at this private university. Although some courts have extended constitutional protections for freedom of expression to private universities, as the New Jersey Supreme Court did in a case involving Princeton University.

I’m asking to speak there in the spirit of the same freedom of expression and exchange of ideas that Shapiro and so many on the right demand for their side.

And to be clear, my goal in speaking at Liberty University is in no way intended to anger or provoke people at this Christian college. Rather my sole mission is to build bridges with Evangelical Christians.

Why? Well, some visible Evangelical leaders have been at forefront of misleading good Christians to hate Muslims.

For example, in August, I wrote yet another article calling out Franklin Graham’s hate-mongering of Muslims. Graham, after first defending Trump’s response to the white supremacists’ terror attack in Charlottesville, warned his followers of the “spread of the dark and dangerous teachings of Islam” and claimed that Islam is a religion that controls its followers by use of “fear and intimidation.” In the past, Graham has called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion.”

Turning to Liberty University, it appears that its head, Jerry Falwell Jr., along with some of the students there, could truly use a Muslim friend.  We saw a glaring example of this in December 2015 when Falwell told a gathering of students at Liberty: “I always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill.” The students cheered loudly in response. Falwell then added, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they every show up here.” Does anyone believe Jesus would use words like this?

My efforts to speak at Liberty University didn’t just spring to life this week because of Shapiro’s upcoming speech. I began reaching out to the school back in April via various emails and by phone making it clear of my offer to speak for free and to answer questions about Muslims. I even offered to bring an Imam with me to answer any complex theological questions students may have. But not a word in response.

In August, I even took to tweeting to both Falwell and David Nasser, the senior vice president who deals with student affairs, reiterating my offer.  My plea to Falwell was summed up in my tweet: “Hey @JerryFalwellJr why won’t you let me speak at your @LibertyU? I’ll speak for free to build bridges.” I keep emailing but no response.

And I tweeted to Nasser, “[email protected] You’re VP at @LibertyU I would love to speak at ur school for free to build bridges between Muslims+Christians but no response.”

Now if Liberty University had welcomed other American Muslim speakers, I wouldn’t be asking to speak there. But my research has not revealed any such lectures. Adding to my concerns that this is truly an attempt to not allow the airing of views the Liberty University administration dislikes was an incident from October 2016. As  The Daily Beast reported then, a writer for the school’s paper had his article that was critical of Donald Trump pulled on the order of Falwell, a big Trump supporter.

And to those who think I’m not passionate or sincere about using a comedic lecture to foster understanding I direct you to the 2013 comedy documentary I co-produced/directed, The Muslims Are Coming! In that film, I and five other Muslim American comedians performed free comedy shows in the South and West with the express purpose of meeting our fellow Americans and answering questions/addressing concerns they may have about Muslims. There were no “Borat” type moments in this film where we mocked people—although we did respectfully challenge the views of a spokesperson from the American Family Association.

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Through this entire “war on freedom of expression” that the right claims is being waged, I have yet to see a single conservative speak out defending the right of a progressive to speak at a college. Between 2000 and 2014 there were 96 instances of students and faculty from the right who sought to block a speaker because they objected to their progressive views, as documented by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. And just in December, college Republicans at Orange Coast College demanded a teacher be fired for criticizing Donald Trump. Do you recall seeing any leading conservatives denouncing these right wing efforts to silence these progressives?

The closest I witnessed was when I tweeted to Ben Shapiro on Tuesday, “[email protected] I 100% support your right to speak at UC Berkeley-Will you state publicly your support of me speaking at Liberty Univ? @LibertyU.”

Shapiro’s response sums him up well: “Sure, if some student group is dumb enough to invite you. But you don’t have a right, since Liberty is private.”

Again, I’m not making a legal argument—rather it’s one about true freedom of expression at its essence and the exchange of ideas that is so desperately needed. It’s about an America so deeply divided that a school like Liberty won’t even respond to a progressive Muslim’s numerous requests to try to unite Americans of different faiths. If they had at least given me a reason why they didn’t want me to speak I could address that with them.

I challenge those on the right who have claimed their freedom of expression is under assault to now to take a stand for this progressive Muslim to speak at Liberty University. Anything less will make it clear that those conservatives believe freedom of expression is something to be protected only when they agree with the speaker.