Several Northern Virginia high school debate teams have decided they will boycott this year’s Virginia state championships. The championships are to be held at Liberty University, an evangelical mega-university in Lynchburg. In December, Jerry Falwell Jr., the university’s president, gave a passionate speech in which he stated “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed us” before encouraging students to attend free firearm training provided by the university so they could “teach them a lesson if they ever show up.” He later sent out a tweet saying he was only referring to Muslims responsible for terrorist attacks such as the attacks in San Bernardino and Paris.
His attempt at clarification did little to placate the debate community in the region. Coaches began writing to the Virginia High School League, the organization responsible for coordinating the championship, urging them to relocate the event. Teams from at least five Northern Virginia high schools decided not to compete at the championships while others backed out of VHSL debates altogether. Many remarked that the anti-Muslim rhetoric was all the more threatening when combined with “the fact that Liberty promotes concealed weapon carry on its campus.”
“Where we choose to debate to actually debate-does not occur where there are weapons,” said Jim Dunning, coach of the Broad Run Debate team in Loudon County.
Among those choosing not to participate in the championships at Liberty are Fatima Shahbaz and Jessica Boyer, a team that is thus far undefeated this season. In the face of critics of their decision who insist the whole point of debate is to talk through sensitive and controversial issues, the teenagers issued a statement saying that “Falwell’s remarks take away the “safe and healthy” aspects necessary for an effective debate and provoke a tendency for complacency over such hateful comments from not only the general public, but also from the administration of VHSL. Falwell’s comments also serve to intimidate minority voices, which runs counter to the spirit of debate.”
The pair also wrote that Falwell’s tweet stating that by “Muslims” he only meant “Muslim terrorists,” did not in any way mitigate his remarks and “only showcases that the two are apparently interchangeable.”