Boston College Students Experience the Benefits of True Civil Debate

By on October 7, 2013

“Civility” is one of the words that sets off alarm bells at FIRE. (No, it’s not because we’re unusually rude.) Many universities have enacted “civility codes,” ostensibly to maintain a respectful and inclusive atmosphere on campus. But, as my colleague Samantha Harris has pointed out, this is often censorship by another name. If you curtail how someone expresses him or herself, you may also restrict the message they can convey. Free speech cannot be subjected to a politeness requirement. As Justice Harlan observed in Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25 (1971): For, while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric. Indeed, we think it is largely because governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual. Although FIRE opposes speech codes, civility in its true sense is one of FIRE’s core values. It is the theme of FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. The term “civility code” trivializes the meaning of the word “civility,” which derives from civilitas, the Latin word for citizen or body politic. Its original overtones had to do with an individual’s contribution to public life, of which proper behavior was a part. Only later did it take on the connotation of simply being polite. So, unless you are a permanent resident of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the idea that civility means not hurting anyone’s feelings misses the point almost entirely. At a university, the idea of civility needs to be much deeper and richer: Because a college exists to promote knowledge, civility is best thought of as the constructive exchange of ideas. Such exchanges can be productive even when they are not necessarily polite. If you doubt this, ask the veterans of the marches and sit-ins of the civil rights movement. It’s not polite to have a sit-in to protest segregation, but it certainly can be productive. A recent event at Boston College (BC) illustrates my point. As reported in BC Heights, the student newspaper, Ryan T. Anderson, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation, gave a talk at BC titled “A Case Against Gay Marriage.” Predictably, there was opposition to his message. In this case, the opposition was organized by the BC Students for Sexual Health (BCSSH). However, the group abandoned its initial tactic of calling for an occupation to shut the event down and instead “encouraged students to show up wearing Support Love shirts and to participate in the discussion.” In fact, so many students appeared that the event had to be moved to a larger room. Anderson’s talk was followed by an hour-long question and answer session that turned into a substantive debate on the relationship between marriage and child-rearing. Afterwards, the GLBTQ Leadership Council hosted another discussion, where Mike Villafranca, the co-president of the Thomas More Society, which had invited Mr. Anderson to campus, spoke. Villafranca summed up the evening as follows: I was concerned going into tonight’s talk because I knew nothing about Mr. Anderson, and I was worried that the student reaction would be visceral and angry[.]  Instead of that, I was impressed by the way that the students from GLC and BCSSH reacted to what Mr. Anderson said. It was clear that they came with ideas about what they wanted to ask, but that they listened to what he had to say, and they challenged him in terms of what he said rather than what they came expecting to hear. Dare one say it? It sounds like the discourse was civil. Not civil in the sense that everyone was tiptoeing around the subject to avoid causing offense (which was probably impossible in this case) but civil in the sense of a group of people coming together in good faith to debate the nature of marriage. And, as the BC Heights editorial board observed after the event:  Despite initially strong reactions against the event, “A Case Against Gay Marriage” ended up being a crucially important event on campus. By organizing so strongly in force against Anderson’s argument while remaining respectful, those students who opposed his opinion made their case all the more impressively. The questions asked of Anderson were well aimed and forced him to defend the more controversial parts of his argument…. Although initially turned off by the outcry from students before his event, Anderson tweeted after the event that he was impressed by those in attendance, with good reason. A similar opportunity is unfolding at the University of South Florida (USF), where Dr. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield is due to speak. Dr. Butterfield is, as she puts it, a former “leftist lesbian” who converted to Christianity and left her tenure-track position at Syracuse University. She is now the wife of a Presbyterian pastor and the mother of four children. The Oracle, a student newspaper at USF, reports the usual objections to a controversial speaker: One student explained that by allowing Dr. Butterfield to “preach some kind of hateful and discriminatory message,” the university was “implicitly condoning that it is OK and that they are going to stand for that kind of speech and actions, when the university is everything against that[.]”  But The Oracle also reports a more encouraging viewpoint. It quotes Dean for Students Michael Freeman, who pointed out that a university should be a forum for “different points of view—views that may be repugnant to some, but that align with others.” Freeman encouraged skeptical students to attend Dr. Butterfield’s talk and ask questions or to host a speaker with an alternate perspective or to protest peacefully. “The nature and function of a university is to bring minds to a conversation,” he said. “In the end, it may be just listening and still not agreeing, but being able to say that’s OK.” We hope that the students at USF take Dean Freeman’s advice. They can look to their fellow students at Boston College for confirmation that engaging in intellectual debate is not only civil but rewarding for all involved.Image: Boston College building - Wikipedia

Schools: Boston College University of South Florida