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Free Speech Doesn’t Require Sponsorship, But It Does Require Commitment

By June 2, 2016

This spring, I wrote about the start of “disinvitation season” 2016, referencing attempts by students and faculty members to get speakers disinvited from college and university campuses because of views they hold. Adam Cassandra, writing for The Federalist, seems to agree with my piece’s central position, which is that “using free speech to criticize selected speakers is superior to attempting to get the university to revoke the speakers’ platform to speak”except, Cassandra argues, at religious colleges and universities that promise free speech. (Cassandra also has kind words for FIRE’s work, which we appreciate.) He says religious institutions’ commitment to “truth,” as defined by their religion, trumps the values of free speech. He writes, by way of example:

There is no place at a faithfully Catholic college for the head of Planned Parenthood or a public abortion advocate such as Wendy Davis to proclaim that killing the innocent unborn is a legitimate position. These one-sided advocacy events that blatantly defy the moral teachings of the church have no academic value, do not invite true dialogue on divisive issues, and—from the perspective of a Catholic college that embraces the Catholic faith—could spiritually harm students.

Cassandra also takes issue with my criticism of efforts to disinvite Vice President Joe Biden from the University of Notre Dame:

In promoting a good principle, Marchese makes the mistake of disregarding the very mission of a Catholic college and its commitment to truth. Notre Dame’s choice to honor Biden as an exemplary Catholic is perhaps the most scandalous commencement honor of the year, due to his lifetime of support for abortion and his more recent defense of same-sex marriage and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate.

As a graduate of Boston College, a Jesuit, Catholic institution, I understand Cassandra’s argument; there is something to be said about a private school choosing its own mission statement and enforcing values that further that mission. That said, Cassandra’s piece misses the mark because it fails to recognize one fundamental principle: Schools like Boston College and Notre Dame have every right to align themselves with Catholic social teaching, but they must not mislead potential students.

Greg Lukianoff, CEO and president of FIRE, has made this point in the past:

Public colleges are bound by the First Amendment and must provide freedom of speech and academic freedom to students and faculty alike. Private colleges are not bound by the First Amendment. Indeed, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association means that citizens have the freedom to form and join organizations under a common set of principles. Private organizations are of course not required to make free speech their top priority; instead, they can choose to organize around the values of their choice.

Most private colleges—like Yale and Harvard—promise free speech and other basic rights in glowing language. Other colleges, like Liberty or Brigham Young University, place their religious identity above all else, making clear to incoming students that free speech takes a backseat to faith on campus.

Put simply, if a school promises freedom of speech and expression, then it must honor that commitment. Failure to do so isn’t just dishonest; it’s a potential breach of contract with all the attendant legal consequences.

What’s more, in the case of Notre Dame specifically, the university actually does promise freedom of speech and academic freedom in its mission statement:

The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where through free inquiry and open discussion the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity. [Emphasis added.]

The intellectual interchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by, the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students. The Catholic identity of the University depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals. This ideal has been consistently maintained by the University leadership throughout its history. What the University asks of all its scholars and students, however, is not a particular creedal affiliation, but a respect for the objectives of Notre Dame and a willingness to enter into the conversation that gives it life and character. Therefore, the University insists upon academic freedom which makes open discussion and inquiry possible.

Though commitments to free speech and religious values do not have to be mutually exclusive, they can, and often do, conflict. That’s why schools should adopt unambiguous language making clear to prospective students what they’re signing up for when they enroll. For example, as Lukianoff notes, Liberty University, a private, Christian school in Virginia, “makes it extraordinarily clear to its students that they are giving up all manner of freedoms that they would enjoy at a public college. All applicants to Liberty must sign a contract stating that they have read and agree to abide by ‘The Liberty Way,’ which stresses that Liberty students must ‘live a chaste, honorable and virtuous life.’”

It is in that same spirit that, just as students enrolling at a religious institution must respect that institution’s values, the same institution must also honor its commitments to its students.

Cassandra ends his with the following observation:

The protests against speakers and honorees at Catholic colleges who are openly opposed to church teaching are not opposed to rational, free speech in the pursuit of truth. Instead, they seek to uphold the mission of Catholic colleges and their dedication to the cause of truth.

On this, we can agree: As I argue in my piece, students and faculty members should feel free to criticize speakers and honorees with whom they disagree. This applies to both public and private schools. But if freedom of speech and expression are part of a Catholic university’s mission, as is in the case of Notre Dame, then an institution must not renege on its promises to uphold those freedoms, even if doing otherwise means hosting speakers who disagree with church teaching.