How Catholic University Campuses Handle Free Speech in an Age of Intolerance

NEWS ANALYSIS: Catholic university leaders have observed a change in students’ sensitivities regarding ‘offensive’ speech, and they attribute this shift partly to the lack of civility in politics and media.

Georgetown University
Georgetown University (photo: Weerawich/Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — Violent protests against conservative speakers and student-led campaigns to squelch “offensive” speech have stirred fears that U.S. college campuses have become hotbeds of intolerance.

Surveys of college students give further credence to reports of a decline in support for the constitutional right to freedom of speech among the young, and this month the University of Florida said it spent $500,000 on security when Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, spoke on its campus.

Catholic universities and colleges have not been forced to contend with threats of violence by student activists, but they are working to strike the right balance when controversies arise over politics or the many issues addressed by Catholic moral teaching on marriage, sexuality, contraception and abortion.

“If a university doesn’t allow free inquiry, it won’t be able to teach students well or make progress in knowledge,” John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, told the Register.

“You can’t have a university without freedom of speech.”

Earlier this year, the “narrow window of permissible topics” for open discussion on U.S. campuses prompted John Villasenor, a professor at UCLA, to survey 1,500 undergraduates at four-year institutions of higher education about their views on free speech, and his research confirmed that the democratic tradition of reasoned discourse is losing ground among college students.


Response to ‘Offensive Speech’

Asked whether they thought it was permissible to employ violence to respond to a speaker that makes “offensive and hurtful statements,” 19% of respondents agreed that it was, with almost equal numbers of self-identified Republicans and Democrats sharing this view. Further, 51% of respondents (62% Democrats; 39% Republicans) said it was acceptable to shout down a speaker.

“If … a large fraction of college students believe, however incorrectly, that offensive speech is unprotected by the First Amendment, that view will inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers,” warned Villasenor in his study, which was published by the Brookings Institution.

This social-science data, said CUA’s Garvey, suggests that college-age students hew to “a very different set of commitments than the generation ahead of them.”

Garvey and other Catholic university leaders contacted by the Register acknowledged that they, too, had observed a change in students’ sensitivities regarding “offensive” speech, and they attributed this shift, at least in part, to the lack of restraint and civility in much of politics and social media.

But they also noted that their institutions have not confronted violent skirmishes like those of left-wing protesters at the University of California at Berkeley. Nor are they under pressure to invite incendiary right-wing political figures like Richard Spencer to their campuses. Public universities have less control over such matters.


Inclined to Reasoned Debate

Indeed, Catholic colleges and universities are free to enforce mission-based student-conduct guidelines that bar violent or disruptive behavior as a form of protest. These standards, say Catholic educators, are reinforced by shared religious beliefs and virtues that foster respect for the dignity of each person, classroom instruction that encourages reasoned debate, and the search for truth.

“Building a culture that respects freedom of speech requires the practice of virtues like humility,” said Garvey.

“There is a kind of pride in supposing that we know the answers to all the questions that might concern us,” he added, “and there is an appropriate humility in a willingness to listen to what others have to say and the possible corrections they might offer to our beliefs or actions.”

At the University of Notre Dame, students are directed to respectfully disagree with outside speakers, even when they vehemently oppose their views.

When Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the University of Notre Dame’s commencement, about 100 students walked out during his address to protest his policies for serving the needy while he was governor of Indiana.

But they did not otherwise disrupt his speech.

“Vice President Pence spoke to this issue [of free speech] in his commencement address … saying: ‘Notre Dame is a campus where deliberation is welcomed, where opposing views are debated, and where every speaker, no matter how unpopular or unfashionable, is afforded the right to air their views in the open for all to hear,’” Dennis Brown, the university spokesman, told the Register. “I don’t know that we can put it any better than that.”

Timothy Bradley, a student at Notre Dame Law School who also earned an undergraduate degree at the South Bend, Indiana, university, agreed with that assessment.

“Notre Dame’s campus environment is much better, in many respects, than a lot of other colleges that one reads about in the news,” he said. “Exceptions do arise from time to time with speakers or events organized on controversial culture-war issues, where the speakers defend either the orthodox Catholic position on an issue or represent what could be called the conservative view.” 

This month at Georgetown University Law Center, students and faculty demonstrated against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who gave an address that defended the First Amendment and called for universities to crack down on attempts to suppress controversial speakers.

But while a number of student protesters placed duct tape over their mouths to critique what they viewed as President Donald Trump’s intimidating response to his critics and others held signs that stated, “Free Speech Is Not Hate Speech,” Sessions was able to speak freely.

“The relative absence of groups like antifa at even effectively post-Catholic institutions such as Georgetown and Fordham is encouraging,” John Zmirak, the author of Choosing the Right College, 2014-2015, told the Register, referencing an extremist protest group that was allegedly involved in the violence and property damage on Berkeley’s campus.

“There seems to be a lingering spirit of civility and openness at such schools that reflects their … Catholic origins and heritage,” Zmirak added. 


Balance of Free Speech and Mission Focus

Meanwhile, Catholic institutions that are known for their spirited defense of Church teaching, like Franciscan University of Steubenville, seek to balance respect for free speech with a mission-focused commitment to present the Catholic faith with clarity.

“Our faculty handbook says that the university is a privileged place for dialogue,” said Daniel Kempton, Franciscan’s vice president for academic affairs.

Kempton, also a professor of political science, further noted that today’s students “are less comfortable hearing things with which they disagree. That is an attribute of this generation, [and] the university is a place where they should hear these discussions.”

That said, he also emphasized that the Franciscan faculty handbook bars the promotion of “values contrary to the Catholic teaching.”

“If a member of the faculty invites a speaker who may oppose Catholic teaching in some form, then the faculty member is required to stand up” and address any confusion, and thus “make sure the students don’t leave without hearing the truth of Catholic teaching.”

Franciscan University’s policy serves as a reminder that there is no single standard for grounding campus free-speech policies. In fact, the policies of Catholic institutions are often in tension with libertarian arguments that demand unfettered freedom of speech on campus.

Faith-based schools, depending on the religious and secular principles that guide their missions, may limit students’ exposure to speakers or restrict the establishment of controversial student clubs.

For example, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a libertarian watchdog group, tagged Fordham University as “one of America’s 10 worst colleges for free speech,” after the Jesuit institution barred the establishment of Students for Justice in Palestine, a proposed student club that sought to advocate divestment in Israel, among other goals.

Fordham’s restrictions on student clubs underscore the fact that speech issues on Catholic campuses go well beyond the headlines sparked by controversial speakers. At progressive-minded institutions, students and professors who support Catholic doctrine on marriage, sexual ethics and abortion may find themselves in the crosshairs of student activists and their allies in the faculty and administration.


Free Speech and Religious Liberty

Back at Georgetown, a fresh controversy surfaced over the past month, when the student newspaper, The Hoya, called for Love Saxa, a student club that promotes Catholic teaching on marriage, to be defunded and kicked off campus.

“Love Saxa does not deserve the benefit of university recognition,” stated an editorial in The Hoya, which argued that the club’s “mission [marriage being between one man and one woman] advocates against equal rights for the LGBTQ community” and “fosters intolerance.”

Two students formally petitioned for the university to take action against Love Saxa, and an initial hearing with the Student Activities Commission is scheduled for Oct. 30.

In a statement emailed to the Register, a Georgetown spokesman adopted a neutral position on the debate over Love Saxa’s free-speech rights, at least for the present.

“We strongly support a climate that continues to provide students with new and deeper contexts for engaging with our Catholic tradition and identity,” read the statement. “Love Saxa is one of many groups operating on campus with positions that affirm the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

The statement added, “We also support a climate that is welcoming to all students and supporting [sic] of our LGBTQ communities.”

But Amelia Irvine, Love Saxa’s president, believes the campaign against the club should be taken very seriously.

“Our definition of ‘healthy relationships’ and ‘sexual integrity’ is synonymous with those of the Catholic Church, and therefore those of Georgetown University,” said Irvine in a statement on Facebook.

“If The Hoya wishes to call Love Saxa a hate group, we anticipate that it will not be long until other traditional religious groups are labeled ‘hate groups,’ as well.”

Catholic educational leaders agree that threats to free speech also pose a danger to religious freedom, and students need to understand what is at stake.

“The notion that people are entitled to freedom of speech grew out of [the push for] religious liberty. It was an argument for religious freedom of speech by religious dissenters,” noted Garvey, who is an expert on constitutional law.

The accommodation of “religious pluralism led to the belief that we could safely hear from all sides and that would be the wisest and most democratic practice.”

The history and iconic texts that ground America’s experiment in ordered liberty, along with the Church’s philosophical teachings that explain the bond between faith and reason, are part of the curriculum at some Catholic institutions of higher education. But they are missing on other campuses, where the syllabi and classroom instruction do not instill in pupils a hunger for truths that challenge the values and experience of their generation.

“If you take the pursuit of truth and wisdom seriously, it is arduous,” Michael McLean, the president of Thomas Aquinas College, told the Register. “It requires students and teachers to admit when they are wrong, or when they have been presented with a stronger argument than they were able to present.”

Said McLean, “That is what an education is all about.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]