Recently, the Washington press corps has been outraged over President Trump’s decision to unfriend CNN’s Jim Acosta regarding a heated exchange involving the president, an intern, and a microphone. The media’s embrace of someone speaking his mind in the context of the fourth estate stands in stark contrast to the plight of a University of California at Berkeley campus senator who was elected to represent school media concerns, and now faces a backlash for declining to support the politics of fellow students.
As someone working with more than 1,200 student groups across the country, I know Isabella’s story is a case study in the kind of pressures students face when they don’t toe the party line of student and faculty activists who hold the power on so many campuses today.
Student Senator Isabella Chow came under fire when she abstained from a vote to condemn the Trump administration for defining gender as a person’s sex at birth, a campus measure promoted by the Queer Alliance Resource Center. On a large campus, Chow had run on a platform of defending the interests of student media and as a pro-life Christian, seeking the support of those constituencies and coming in second out of all the students seeking a senator’s seat at the school. It’s a huge responsibility, involving staff, projects, and real work to advance the interests of those who elected her.
“I’m well known as the Christian senator who is pro-life,” says Chow, an Asian student whose parents met after immigrating to pursue the American dream. While her general platform, background, and views were understood and counter-cultural on campus, relationships with her fellow students were respectful, until recently.
Chow was faced with the choice to endorse something she did not agree with, and in failing to do so has been attacked, vilified, and silenced. Her social media erupted into name-calling and vitriol, up to the edge of violence. At the Senate meeting following the vote, protesters gathered, shouting and chanting, taking to the mike for more than three hours demanding her resignation, name calling and harassing her, something that sometimes continues as she travels the campus.
A petition circulated demanding her resignation, while other students threatened a recall. She was voted out of every club of which she was a member, including the Berkeley Political Review, which is supposed to be a nonpartisan political journal, with two exceptions — her church fellowship and the campus Students for Life group.
Chow was also disaffiliated from the campus organization she was representing as a senator, including the fourth estate and media interests on campus. Adding insult to injury, the student media publications she once championed refused her an opportunity to present her point of view, while editorializing, “UC Berkeley students cannot allow and accept leaders like Chow to make decisions on their behalf.” Sanctimoniously, the guardians of free speech on campus could not allow even an alternative point of view to be heard.
Chow offered brief remarks in the hearing in which she refused to endorse the consensus, beginning by stating her love for all her fellow students, then calling out “the bullies and bigots” who “perpetuate the toxic stereotypes that my community and I vehemently abhor and even fight tooth and nail to strike from our identify in Christ.”
As a person of faith committed to loving her fellow students, Chow struggled with the bill’s demand for support of a broader agenda, noting, “Where this bill crosses the line for me is that I am asked to promote a choice of identities that I do not agree to be right or best for an individual, and to promote certain organizations that uphold values contrary to those of my community.”
This kind of pressure by those in power to force consensus and even celebration is well known to us in the pro-life movement, and particularly relevant here, as Chow also heads the Students for Life group at her campus.
Pro-life students often find their free speech rights violated on campuses, where student leaders and school officials silence the pro-life generation. Threats of violence now pollute the free marketplace of ideas, as I’ve experienced firsthand from threats from groups such as Antifa. Chow endures, now needing her friends and supporters to stand with her to make sure that she is safe on the campus she loves.
If school governments, or any government, can force people to act against their consciences, we have lost our most important First Amendment freedoms.
It’s a shame that all the media outlets covering the circumstances surrounding Acosta’s confrontation with the president spend so little time noticing the plight of students on college campuses today. When all is said and done, the CNN reporter will probably get a lucrative book deal, but the same cannot be said of students who face tremendous pressure to be silent on the great debates of our day or endure extreme opposition and ostracization.
Student leaders like Chow are the true defenders of free speech today, and they pay a far greater price than celebrity journalists like Acosta.