Over 600 Chapman alumni, affiliates, call for Sanders to be disinvited

Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is set to take part in an event with Robert Gibbs Nov. 20, hosted by the Center for Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity

Updated Nov. 20 at 9:30 a.m.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders will not be disinvited to the Nov. 20 event hosting her and former press secretary Robert Gibbs, according to Lisa Sparks, dean of the School of Communication and Republican candidate for Congress, and Brian Calle, director of the center. The decision comes after (as of Nov. 20) 619 Chapman alumni, a former trustee and donors signed an open letter asking for her invitation to be revoked.

“I expected that some people would be uncomfortable with the event and the speakers at the event. I’m bummed that some people want us to rescind an invite a speaker, but I’m not surprised by it,” Calle said. “It reaffirms the need to host events like these on campus. We need to be a place at Chapman and in education where we can challenge and discuss ideas that we don’t agree with and with people who we might vehemently disagree.” 

Sparks echoed the sentiment, saying that it’s the center’s “full intent” to continue inviting controversial speakers. Both Sparks and Calle told The Panther that no formal response will be issued regarding the letter, despite its over 600 signatures. They also did not express concern about any potential upset between the alumni, trustees and donors who signed the letter and the school. 

“We’ve gotten an outpouring of private emails and communication supporting what we’re doing. I don’t see any issue or problem,” Sparks said. 

Both Sparks and Calle have engaged in conversations about media bias throughout their careers. They were questioned by The Panther as to the intentions behind the Nov. 20 event, as Sparks frequently engages with biased publications, including Fox News, on social media. Calle contributed to Fox 11 as the co-host of a weekly news broadcast during his career.  

“As a communications scholar about freedom of speech and about being able to provide this venue of dialogue and discourse, it’s at the core of who I am,” Sparks said. When asked why alumni, trustees, and donors should trust her and the center’s intentions, Sparks said “that’s up to them.” 

“This is academic freedom. My faculty have academic freedom and choice to choose who they want to bring connected to the center,” Sparks added.  

Calle also commented on the intentions behind the event, saying that Sparks has never met or spoken to Sanders. 

“As far as I know, I don’t even think they know who Lisa is or that she will be at the event,” Calle said. “It’s impossible for there to be ulterior motives to help Lisa with her political career from this event. Huckabee doesn’t know who she is, and Lisa hasn’t been involved in the conversations and program planning.” 

Calle, who lives in the district Sparks is running for and is a supporter of her run, is not officially involved with Sparks’ 2020 campaign for the House of Representatives. 

The open letter was sent to President Daniele Struppa and Dean Lisa Sparks Nov. 18, detailing disdain regarding former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ presence at a Chapman event scheduled Nov. 20. 

“We were appalled to learn that the opening of the new Center for Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity will be celebrated with an appearance by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former press secretary to President Trump,” the letter read. “Our dismay is not partisan; among us we have voted for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We share some values in common and many distinct ideologies. Our alarm is that a person who has repeatedly opposed a free press and quashed free and honest speech would be paid to appear at an event celebrating those American ideals.”

An open letter was sent to President Daniele Struppa and Dean Lisa Sparks Nov. 18, detailing disdain regarding former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ presence at a Chapman event scheduled Nov. 20. As of Nov. 18, it has been signed by more than 420 Chapman alumni, trustees and donors. 

“We were appalled to learn that the opening of the new Center for Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity will be celebrated with an appearance by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former press secretary to President Trump,” the letter read. “Our dismay is not partisan; among us we have voted for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We share some values in common and many distinct ideologies. Our alarm is that a person who has repeatedly opposed a free press and quashed free and honest speech would be paid to appear at an event celebrating those American ideals.” 

The Nov. 18 letter was sent to Struppa and Sparks, among others. Courtesy of Allison Frey

The letter, above, was shared with The Panther approximately two hours after it had been sent to Struppa and Sparks. The other recipients of the open letter were Brian Calle,  director of the Center for Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity, and Chapman’s provost Glenn Pfieffer. 

Katherine Blaisdell, a 2009 graduate and author of the open letter, spoke to The Panther about her involvement with the letter and the intentions behind it. 

“There has been discussion about disinviting Sanders and how that would be a blow to the Center. But this isn’t about ideology, or about crushing someone’s free expression,” Blaisdell said. “This is a matter of institutional support and celebration of someone who has made it her public career to demonize the press.” 

In response to this sentiment, Sparks told The Panther that Sanders’ language about the press as the enemy of the people was in line with her “tough job.” Calle said that both he and Sparks would neither condone or support that particular statement, and that he is looking forward to Sanders being asked about her tenure in the White House at the Nov. 20 event. 

“If you’re going to have a center about media and protecting media integrity, if you don’t allow speakers who actually criticize the press, how can you truly and accurately have those conversations about protecting it,” Calle told The Panther. “She’s an interesting speaker because she has been outspoken in her criticism of the press at times.”  

The letter details 13 instances that the signers felt undermined Chapman’s values and called for Sanders’ invitation to the Nov. 20 event to be rescinded. Each claim has been linked to a credible news organization, including NBC News, The Washington Post and Business Insider. It also relies on information sourced from Fox News, the Mueller Report, WhiteHouse.gov and Chapman’s own website. 

“In her time as press secretary, Sanders consistently defended President Trump’s repeated statements against the press, including those in which he called the media ‘the enemy of the people.’ She stated that a reporter’s public expression of a political opinion warranted her being fired as a reporter. Sanders revoked a White House reporter’s press credentials for his refusal to give up his microphone while asking questions at a press briefing, falsely accusing him of putting his hands on a young woman,” the letter reads. “Are these the actions of someone who values our freedom of expression and a free press?”

In addition to its request to disinvite Sanders, the letter also calls for Sparks to disclose information regarding the $1.2 million raised that funds the Center for Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity. 

“We hope to hear a public announcement of both the recension and the donation information before the launch event,” the letter concludes. 

The letter’s signatures range from former Board of Trustees members to distinguished alumni. Its support continues to grow; a live website featuring the letter and an electronic signature option allows for alumni and all others inclined to sign on. 

This is a developing story. Follow The Panther on social media and on www.thepantheronline.com as the story develops.