Free Speech vs. Cancel Culture: Catholic University Defends Professor for Criticizing Biden’s ‘Transgender’ Nominee
David Upham of University of Dallas was targeted by LGBT activists over a Facebook post objecting to Biden’s nomination of a biological man who identifies as a woman as assistant secretary of health and human services.
University of Dallas (UD) professor David Upham got a crash course in cancel culture last month when, in a Facebook post, he criticized President Joe Biden’s transgender policies, specifically his nomination of a transgender female who is a biological male as assistant secretary of health and human services.
In so doing, he joined the growing company of academics and speakers at Catholic colleges who have been castigated for expressing what are deemed unpopular and inappropriate views. Also targeted recently was Alveda King, niece of the late Martin Luther King, Jr., whose public condemnation has been demanded by student activists at Georgetown University.
The group, objecting to speakers at the annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, accused her of promoting “extreme anti-LGBTQ ideologies,” supporting former President Donald Trump and voicing opposition to the Black Lives Matter organization.
Upham’s post, which he has since deleted, drew similar ire in a letter from transgender UD graduate Bethany Beeler, who asked the school’s bishop chancellor, board of trustees, faculty senate, president and provost “to remove Prof. Upham from a position in which he feels free to broadcast such hatred that hardly reflects the love of Christ or the mission of the University of Dallas.” The letter was signed by more than 60 other UD alumni.
In his post, Upham refers to Dr. Rachel Levine as having been born Richard Levine and continues, “Dr. Levine has since, through ingesting various drugs, put on a somewhat convincing hormonal costume to go along with his conventionally feminine dress. He may also, in addition, have surgically mutilated his once-functioning organs of generation — powers of procreation given to him by God Almighty.”
Upham’s post also expresses concern that Levine will now try to use the powers of the federal government to force others to participate in “these falsehoods, these hormonal and surgical harms.”
Beeler claimed in a follow-up that the original letter did not ask that Upham be fired, only that he be held accountable for what he says on social media and that the university consider whether his stances are upheld by the school and taught to students. Beeler has continued to pursue the issue through posts on the website, BethanyBeeler.com.
Soon after Beeler’s letter appeared, a group of UD alumni and students began circulating a letter of support for Upham that garnered 843 signatures before the Jan. 31 cutoff date. Since then, the doctoral student who initiated the letter — and has asked to remain anonymous — said responses have continued to come in from supporters.
UD’s Response Praised
Meanwhile, the university has stood by Upham, who serves as an associate professor, chairman of the politics department and director of legal studies. A joint statement Jan. 29 by President Thomas Hibbs and Jonathan Sanford, provost and incoming president, said the school would not yield to internal or external demands to divert from its policies on such matters, adding that it does not limit the speech of faculty and staff on personal social-media sites.
The statement also reiterates the school’s Catholic identity and fidelity to the Church’s teaching: “The university embraces unreservedly the Church’s articulation of the moral law, including its articulation of those truths that deal with the embodied nature of the human person and human sexuality.”
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, applauded the university for its stance at a time when he said ideology and identity politics have completely dominated most secular campuses and even many once-admirable Catholic universities.
“It’s not surprising that the few colleges that are strong enough to resist demands to shut down reason and dialogue are the faithfully Catholic colleges like University of Dallas that hold firmly to truth. They realize that giving in to ideology means betraying their mission to educate.”
Likewise, Anthony Esolen, who left a tenured position at Providence College after clashing with the Catholic school over its interpretation of “diversity,” praised the UD response. When his critiques of the college in Crisis magazine angered student activists and some faculty members, the administration affirmed that Esolen was protected by academic freedom and freedom of speech but in campus-wide emails said he did not speak for the college and “many others who understand and value diversity in a very different sense from him.”
Esolen told the Register no one in the administration asked to speak with him or even let him know he had been the subject of backroom discussions. He became isolated and marginalized on campus and eventually decided to leave. He is now writer in residence at Magdalen College for the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire.
Esolen said he agreed with what Upham said in his post and added, “There can be no true social polity when people are too terrified to speak their minds; when a stray word here or there can ruin a career; when government is by some never-established and always-shifting etiquette rather than by law; and when people’s lives can be torn apart by innuendo, gossip, backbiting, detraction and calumny, without the slightest danger to the perpetrators and without any sense among the populace that such things are beneath the dignity of a self-governing society.”
Indeed, in the current environment, facing up to powerful movements that seek to silence anyone who challenges certain beliefs can be intimidating, especially when activists resort to accusations of hate and violence that effectively shut down discussion.
The transgender movement in particular has gained clout in recent years, according to Ryan Anderson, author of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. He said this is in part because of power politics, well-funded activist organizations and coalitions that formed through theories of intersectionality.
Anderson, who is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told the Register, “Many ‘gay-rights’ groups were not expecting to ‘win’ on same-sex marriage as quickly as they did. They had built up huge war chests and deep infrastructures. All of that was then directed to the ‘T’ in LGBT. Many people have not had time to think seriously about transgender issues but have assumed if they were an ‘ally’ on gay issues then they should be on ‘trans’ issues.”
Although he has had plenty of conversations with people who disagree with him on trans issues and are open to hearing alternative viewpoints, Anderson acknowledged that many of the movement’s activists and professional “talking heads” can seem unwilling to consider other views. “Some have just made good-faith-but-misguided efforts at protecting human dignity; others seem more committed to gender ideology at all costs.”
Campus Freedoms Threatened
However, the tendency by advocates of certain causes to silence other viewpoints is part of a larger trend toward efforts to limit individual expression, especially on college campuses where academic freedom has long been considered sacrosanct.
Mary Zoeller of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which defends the free speech, religious liberty, conscience and other rights of students and faculty members at colleges and universities in the U.S., said the biggest freedom-of-expression problem on campuses today is a general intolerance for diverse ideas and viewpoints.
Two decades ago, she said, it was more common to see instances of censorship on the part of college administrations, but since then there has been a slight shift more toward students calling for limits on the expression of certain ideas. “Students in college don’t seem able to deal with ideas they don’t like, and they don’t know how to counter them, so they think censorship is a good idea.”
FIRE founder and CEO Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt have pointed out that there is a movement to turn campuses into “safe spaces” by eliminating words, ideas and subjects that might make students uncomfortable or give offense. Anyone who gets in the way of that aim must be punished, creating a culture in which people must think carefully before speaking up or risk being accused of insensitivity or aggression.
FIRE encourages colleges and universities to adopt the “Chicago Statement,” which was developed at the University of Chicago in 2014 and since has been endorsed by 81 institutions, including Georgetown University, which is the only Catholic school to do so. The statement reaffirms the core purpose of a university as a place for free inquiry, debate and discourse.
Zoeller said the University of Chicago has not only demonstrated a commitment to free speech as reflected in the statement but has earned a “green light” rating from FIRE, meaning none of its policies infringe on freedom of expression. The university administration also has been a model for responding to free-speech issues, she said. For example, it recently said No to demands to punish a science professor who spoke out against the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
Although UD is not a “Chicago Statement” school, John Paul Hasson, a senior studying political philosophy, said he values the atmosphere of open debate and discussion that exists there.
“My experience is that you’re always welcome to openly state your beliefs as you see them and to invite challenge, pushback and discussion. It’s one of the things I personally believe makes the university so great. The support for Dr. Upham only backs that up.”
Hasson told the Register that he suspects some of those who signed the letter supporting Upham may have thought his post was untactful or could have been better stated.
“But they absolutely wanted to support him and preserve that atmosphere of intellectual discussion and free speech.” He added, “Universities are supposed to be places where there can be a free exchange of ideas without fear of social repercussions because ultimately you’re pursuing truth.”
Having taken several of Upham’s classes, Hasson said the professor is not one to shy away from hard truths and will preface what he says by saying it may make some people uncomfortable. In that respect, he said, his Facebook post was in character for him.
Upham told the Register that he wrote the post in response to news reports of the Biden administration's policies, and out of frustration that opposition to the president’s agenda was so muted. He received reactions from his Facebook friends ranging from praise to moderate disagreement to blunt criticism. He had planned to delete the post and temporarily deactivate his account in anticipation of the start of the new semester but moved more quickly after hearing his post had elicited unusual outrage.
Upham said he was gratified, but not surprised, by the university’s response.
“We are one of the few colleges or universities left in America where one is free to believe and profess fully both natural and revealed truth as understood by the Christian tradition,” he told the Register.
He said he is not sure he would have changed what he wrote, although he acknowledged it may have been better to emphasize the injustice of Biden’s policies in general rather than focusing on how they are exemplified in one particular nominee. He said he has no personal opposition to anyone in the Biden administration.
Given a charged climate in which challenges to gender ideology are often met with claims of hate and bigotry designed to close down discussion, Upham said the most important thing Catholics can do is remind the world of the truth of God’s plan of “male and female” for the human race as the very basis of universal human dignity.
Anderson added: “First and foremost, we should respond by refusing to silence ourselves. We should speak the truth in love. And both of those concepts matter. We need to do our homework, so to speak, to inform ourselves about the truth of these matters, and then we need to communicate those truths in ways that are accessible to people who may disagree with us and in ways that clearly display a motive of care and concern.”