The virtues of not protesting

Santorum’s visit to the University last week drew a surprisingly mild response

Clad in a suit rather than his trademark sweater vest, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) addressed University students last Thursday evening in Old Cabell Hall. The University’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom hosted the event. Bringing Santorum to Grounds was the fledgling group’s first major move. Since hosting its first interest meeting in April, YAF has spent most of its time on Facebook, where it posts racially objectionable cartoons and, in McCarthyesque fashion, identifies supposed Communists in Congress.

Santorum — who holds a B.A., a J.D. and an M.B.A. — is not fond of higher education. Or at least that’s the line he took while campaigning for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. He accused Obama of being a snob because the sitting president wanted all Americans to gain college degrees. And he made sure to share his view that colleges indoctrinate young people against Christianity.

For someone quick to dismiss institutions of higher learning as cesspools of liberalism and godlessness, Santorum has spoken at a number of “indoctrination mills.” At most schools, his appearance draws protest.

In 2003, Santorum gave the commencement speech at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Of the approximately 700 students graduating from the Jesuit school, 100 walked out in protest before Santorum began speaking.

In 2006, Santorum spoke at Pennsylvania State, his alma mater. Penn State’s College Democrats protested. In 2011, he spoke at Penn State again — this time as a (doomed) presidential candidate. As he exited the event room, about 40 protesters chanted: “We are Penn State; we are not straight.” The chant was meant to indicate opposition to the former senator’s anti-gay views (Santorum famously compared homosexuality to “man-on-dog” in a 2003 interview with the Associated Press).

In September 2012, Santorum gave a lecture at Yale. Protesters held signs outside the event showing names and images of young people who had committed suicide in response to homophobia and bullying. Inside, audience members hissed while Santorum discussed the alleged downfall of the American family.

Given this track record, the most surprising thing about Santorum’s appearance on Grounds was not the content of his speech. It was the astonishingly mild reception he received. Even the over-the-top posters displayed on Grounds — which depicted Santorum’s smiling mug in 17-by-11-inch closeup — did not provoke much of a reaction from students opposed to the former senator’s views.

We should not be hasty in drawing conclusions from the lack of fervor surrounding Santorum’s visit to the University. It could suggest that University students are, to some degree, apathetic — even those involved in progressive or gay-rights organizations, which would be the groups most likely to stage a response to Santorum. Equally, it could suggest that Santorum is a has-been, and simply not worth worrying about any longer.

Regardless, the fact that students didn’t protest the Santorum event is not necessarily a bad thing. Student protests have an unfortunate tendency of sacrificing free-speech principles for the sake of another favored cause. A protest in 2009 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one notable example. Tom Tancredo — another failed Republican presidential candidate with controversial views, though he directs most of his scorn at immigrants, not gay people — was set to give a talk at an event hosted by the unfortunately named student group Youth for Western Civilization. Students gathered in protest. The event ended prematurely when a protester lobbed a rock through a classroom window. Tancredo left, and campus police attempted to clear the halls with Tasers and pepper spray.

The risk that an organized protest will spiral out of control and prevent a speaker from expressing his or her views is worth taking seriously. A better strategy for students who disagree with a speaker is to challenge objectionable views in a civil way. By asking tough questions at the event and hosting counter-speakers, students can enrich the quality of dialogue at a school. Calm discourse makes it easier for students to interrogate ill-supported views and figure out why someone like Santorum might take the positions he does. This strategy transforms a potentially negative experience into an opportunity for learning. And learning — despite Santorum’s declarations to the contrary — is what college strives to encourage.

related stories