As former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum closed his remarks Monday evening during a guest appearance at George Washington University, controversy that’s brewed on campus for nearly a month was visible – half of the students in the auditorium stood in applause while the rest of the room sat stone-faced.
The speech was hosted by the university’s Young America’s Foundation chapter, which was thrust into the national spotlight in the past month because the group boycotted mandatory “LGBT sensitivity training.” In response, the campus organization was labeled a “hate group,” a “cancer,” and was even compared to ISIS.
“The only sensitivity training we need is to respect every person,” Santorum said Monday to strong applause from roughly half the audience. “Tolerance is the most misused word in the English language.”
“Tolerance means you can say really horrible nasty things that I hate and offend me,” he added. “That’s how we get along. You have a right to be mean – a right to be nasty to people. That’s how this country works, because we have thick skins and we aren’t offended.”
While an anticipated protest of the event did not materialize, the overly secure environment of the auditorium – five security guards lined its walls – added to the obvious clash of ideologies as the members of the Young America’s Foundation and various liberal and gay pride campus organizations came together in the audience of roughly 200 students and others.
In his opening remarks, Santorum explained conservative policy on the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran and the impending nuclear deal, and commented on the recent religious protection law passed in Indiana. Afterward, students queued to throw the former senator some tough questions.
“People aren’t dying in America because of this,” one student said, arguing that business owners should be forced to serve everyone regardless of sexual orientation, the concept addressed in the Indiana law.
Santorum was quick to respond: “Should a gay or lesbian-owned printshop have to print signs for the Westboro Baptists that say ‘God hates fags’?”
“If they have the money to pay, they should,” the student shot back, to “ooohh” from the audience.
Taking the gloves off, Santorum continued: “Should a Jewish printshop have to make signs for the KKK? Should a kosher deli have to serve non-kosher food? It’s a two-way street. Tolerance is a two-way street. If you’re saying that ‘your religious liberties are not as important as my fill in the blank,’ then I’ve got a problem with that.”
Peppered with other inquiries ranging from follow-ups on Iran policy and immigration to Santorum’s new book “Bella’s Gift,” about his severely disabled daughter, the theme of the Q&A always returned to gay rights.
“I am a proud and confident lesbian woman, and I’m just wondering why are you denying me my rights to marry the love of my life, to adopt my future children – both of which I will do?” another student asked to thunderous applause from half the room.
The former senator was ready to point out her fallacy.
“I don’t come in and say ‘because you have a different point of view, you’re denying me my view of marriage,’” he said. “You’re expressing your opinion – you have a right to do that, and I have a right to do that.”
Attendees were notified before the event not to bring any book bags or purses with them, and signs carried in protest were also not permitted. A posted message outside the auditorium read: “Any person who disrupts the event will be removed by the University Police Department.”
“If you intend to participate in the larger conversation about American politics and culture, it’s really important to understand about the 40 percent of Americans that call themselves conservatives,” said George Washington University YAF President Emily Jashinsky after introducing Santorum. “I want to invite everyone to demonstrate their very best sense of inclusivity, tolerance, and respect tonight – let’s have a great debate.”
Both Santorum and questioners were repeatedly interrupted by approving applause from both divisions of the audience, yet Santorum coolly and patiently responded to even the most disgruntled students.
“No matter what your passion is on the issues, we need to have a system that says everybody’s allowed in,” Santorum said.
— Patrick X Coyle (@PatrickXCoyle) March 31, 2015
Santorum’s speech came on the eve of “Trans Day of Visibility,” hosted by the student group Allied in Pride, a key opponent of the GWU’s Young America’s Foundation chapter.
“Their decision to bring Rick Santorum – a man who has compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality – to campus the day before Trans Day of Visibility underscores their intolerance and pattern of hate,” Allied in Pride posted on Facebook.
Watch a brief clip from Santorum’s appearance:
College Fix reporter Vivian Hughbanks is a student at Hillsdale College.
IMAGES: Main, Gage Skidmore/Flickr; Inside, Vivian Hughbanks/For The College Fix