Reclaiming the Soapbox

College campuses, presumably sanctuaries for rigorous intellectual debate, are at risk of becoming props on the presidential campaign trail. Typically, campaigns meticulously guard these events, limiting attendance to invitation-only crowds that aren't likely to confront the candidate with tough questions, much less protests. But professors at one Pennsylvania college are leading a national effort to unite campuses in demanding open events, telling candidates that if they don't want democratic discourse, they can take their event elsewhere.

In November, faculty at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, launched the Soapbox Alliance, an initiative that encourages colleges and universities to create open-event policies for political campaigns, with at least half of the tickets to these events made available to the college for general distribution. The alliance, the faculty members hope, will force campaigns to open up their events if they want to hold them on campuses. They also hope it will help colleges live up to their stated missions of promoting discourse and engaging students.

"Closed events are fine, so long as they don't take place on college campuses," said Dan Shea, director and founder of Allegheny's Center for Political Participation and of the Soapbox Alliance. "Our job is to promote genuine debate, and closed events are antithetical to that mission."

Allegheny, a small liberal arts school with 2,100 students, experienced this problem firsthand in October 2004, when Dick Cheney' s vice-presidential campaign asked to use the college's gymnasium for a campaign stop just a month before the election. The campaign wanted to distribute all of the tickets to the event to Bush/Cheney supporters through the local Republican Party and the campus' College Republicans chapter. Since the college didn't have a policy in place regarding campaign stops and feared appearing partisan if it refused to host the event, they were forced to comply with the campaign's request or lose the event.

On the night of Cheney' s visit, though several hundred boisterous protesters were gathered outside the gym, inside, Cheney was greeted by a sedate crowd of devoted supporters -- angering many on the campus and furthering skepticism among students about the political process. "Young folks are cynical about phony events. One of the things that has pushed them away from politics is distrust in the authenticity of events," Shea said. "When candidates come to their campuses and hold these phony town hall meetings, it drives that cynicism."

So, in 2005, Allegheny changed its policy to require campaigns to allow the college to distribute half the tickets. Now Shea and the Soapbox Alliance are pushing for others to adopt similar policies. To date, seven colleges have agreed, including the University of Dubuque in Iowa, a school that several candidates visited during the primary campaign. The Soapbox Alliance hopes to bring more colleges on board as the 2008 campaign goes into full swing.

"Open candidate policies can only work if most schools get on board," Shea said. "If Allegheny says no to a closed event, they'll just go down the road. So we've all got to come together."