The ‘Right’ Not to Be Offended, Part 3,590,328

By March 7, 2006

Today, The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting (subscription required) the following:

The U.S. Supreme Court ended a two-year legal battle on Monday, when it declined to hear an appeal of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a sculpture at Washburn University that some considered anti-Catholic.

A bronze bust of a sneering, corpulent Roman Catholic clergyman wearing a bishop’s hat, or miter, that many said resembled a penis infuriated Catholic groups when it was displayed as part of the Kansas university’s temporary outdoor art exhibit during the 2003-4 academic year. At the base of the sculpture, called “Holier Than Thou,” the artist included a statement saying that, at age 7, he was “scared to death” at encountering this face in a dark confessional booth.

Roman Catholics protested the sculpture’s display. Initially, the archbishop of Kansas City, Kan., asked the university to remove it. Washburn, a public institution, declined to do so.

Then a professor and a student sued. Thomas O’Connor, a biology professor who has since retired, and Andrew Strobl, who was a student at the time, accused Washburn of violating their rights under the establishment clause of the First Amendment by exhibiting a statue hostile to Roman Catholicism.

As Inside Higher Ed reported previously, the suit was brought on behalf of a Washburn student and professor by the Thomas More Law Center.

The end of the Washburn kerfuffle brings up an opportunity to re-emphasize an important point FIRE has to make constantly: there is no right not to be offended, especially on campus. Encountering ideas that conflict with one’s most deeply held beliefs is part of life. It is impossible to enter a real “marketplace of ideas,” which is what most colleges promise to offer, and be completely comfortable all of the time. That applies as much to Catholics as it does to evangelical Christians, Muslims, and even atheists—which is why FIRE has stood up for students and professors’ right to publish cartoons that many Muslims find morbidly offensive, as well as student RAs’ right to study the Bible privately even if others may not like their interpretation. No group, religious or not, does itself any favor by calling for censorship.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire