This post was updated on Sunday, Dec. 20.
Coaches of some of Virginia’s top high school debate teams are asking authorities to consider moving the state’s annual debate championship off the Liberty University campus due to recent comments by Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. that many saw as threatening to Muslims.
A handful of coaches are lobbying the nonprofit that oversees high school competitions – athletic and academic – in Virginia, saying teams may boycott the spring event if it’s held at Liberty, where it has been for more than a decade. Liberty has a large, modern campus with high-end facilities of all kinds, and it wasn’t clear immediately if similar movements were underway with other activities Liberty hosts.
Some debate coaches have written to the nonprofit, the Virginia High School League, and others have posted their concerns on Facebook or held discussions and votes among their students. This weekend, the League said in a statement that it has already signed a contract to have the 2016 debate championships and other events at Liberty, but takes the coaches’ concerns seriously and will work with law enforcement authorities to “initiate a process of evaluating the safety of students when participating in VHSL events in light of these controversial comments.”
“VHSL places the highest value on the safety and security of its students, and takes steps to ensure that all students engaging in VHSL activities are afforded the opportunity to participate in an environment free from harassment, personal threat, or physical or mental harm,” the statement says. “If these essential freedoms cannot be guaranteed to VHSL participants, VHSL will re-evaluate the propriety of using Liberty University facilities for its championship events in the future.”
The coaches’ concerns stem from Falwell’s comments in a talk to students this month about terrorism, in which he urged students to arm themselves against “those Muslims” who might come on campus and do harm. His comments set off enormous cheers among the thousands in attendance.
“There are a number of coaches and debaters and some parents who are concerned about stepping foot on the campus. And I’m wondering how appropriate is this, how well does it coincide with VHSL’s goals of citizenship and sportsmanship which involves a lot of respect?” said James Dunning, assistant coach for debate and speech at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Va. The school has about 50 debaters, Dunning said, and has won the state championship about half the time in the past two decades.
The idea of boycott is challenging for debaters — a group whose existence is about engaging on any topic. Dunning wrote that a boycott is not the first option, but instead the VHSL should “begin a vigorous, public dialogue with its constituency — and even Mr. Falwell — that counters the ovation of the 10,000.” In an email sent to the Virginia League on Sunday, Dunning asked how officials there would reconcile Falwell’s encouragement of students and others at Liberty to arm themselves with the League’s prohibition of weapons from its state events.
The League’s statement, which was dated Saturday, said it respects Falwell’s right “to engage in public speech, and will not take retaliatory action against the University even when that speech is found to be offensive by a significant number of VHSL member schools and their students. It is a bedrock principle of American Constitutional government that a citizen has a right to speak his or her opinions, even when others find those opinions to be rude and offensive. Likewise, it is the right of VHSL members to boycott or protest in a peaceful and appropriate manner consistent with Constitutional principles.”
Alex Fogelson, debate coach to about 80 kids at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, said his students already told him they aren’t comfortable going to Liberty.
“One issue is about [their] safety, but the one that’s most critical is the whole idea of acceptance and who we are as debaters, teachers, students,” he said.
The whole idea of debate, he said, is to be open to different ideas and perspectives on every question. The question is how. Fogelson said he is urging the league and state officials to find ways to have deeper community dialogue or debate about the issues at hand. Just not, perhaps, at Liberty.
“If anyone can handle having this conversation, these kids are the ones. They know how to analyze facts, to put together an argument, to present themselves,” he said. “And it’s not just Jerry Falwell against everyone else, it’s a bigger story. I want them to know, what was he really trying to say and why did 10,000 people cheer? So when they go out and face their own diverse situations — they have to work and live and communicate and sway others and be swayed — they can’t just say: ‘Hey, these are 10,000 people in one little spot and we can boycott them and walk away.’ I don’t know think that’s the way to go.”
Duane Hyland, debate coach at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, said about a quarter of his 50 debaters (grades 7 to 12) are Muslim, including his best debater, who is Palestinian American.
“I would not risk his safety or subject him to undue anguish,” said Hyland. “I do defend Falwell’s right to say what he wants, but with that freedom comes bearing consequences of one’s actions.”
Notes from the League’s October board meeting showed Liberty being reconfirmed as the site for 2015-2016 events in track, football and the Spring Jubilee, which is the state championship for multiple sports including tennis, soccer and baseball. The notes also show members of one of the League’s regions voting unanimously “to remove Liberty University as site host in the future.” It wasn’t clear if that was a final vote and league officials Tuesday declined to respond to questions.
In May, the league put out a news release saying it had settled litigation launched by Liberty Christian Academy, a private school (preschool through high school) founded by Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell. The release said the league would, as a result of the suit, permit not just public but “all non-boarding private schools in Virginia” to become members of the league and compete in league events.