Marquette University, a Roman Catholic institution in Wisconsin, is swiftly establishing itself as a place where not all viewpoints are welcome—even if those viewpoints align with those of the Catholic Church.
On his (non-university-affiliated) Marquette Warrior blog, Marquette political science professor John McAdams wrote this weekend about an incident that occurred in Cheryl Abbate’s “Theory of Ethics” class. McAdams reported:
[Abbate] listed some issues on the board, and came to “gay rights.” She then airily said that “everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it.”
[A] student, a conservative who disagrees with some of the gay lobby’s notions of “gay rights” (such as gay marriage) approached her after class and told her he thought the issue deserved to be discussed. Indeed, he told Abbate that if she dismisses an entire argument because of her personal views, that sets a terrible precedent for the class.
Abbate explained that “some opinions are not appropriate, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions” and then went on to ask “do you know if anyone in your class is homosexual?” And further “don’t you think it would be offensive to them” if some student raised his hand and challenged gay marriage? The point being, apparently that any gay classmates should not be subjected to hearing any disagreement with their presumed policy views.
FIRE takes no institutional stance on the issue of same-sex marriage. But professors who truly wish to educate should encourage students to voice controversial opinions rather than proclaim from on high that some viewpoints are off-limits. Students benefit from having their beliefs challenged, being asked to articulate and defend their own views, and being exposed to differing viewpoints. Universities are meant to be “marketplaces of ideas,” where students openly share their own opinions and debate with others. And Marquette students, in particular, have two reasons to think they’d be able to freely discuss same-sex marriage, regardless of their viewpoint.
It is clearly inevitable, and indeed essential, that the spirit of inquiry and challenge that the university seeks to encourage will produce many conflicts of ideas, opinions and proposals for action.
Second, Marquette is a Catholic institution. Its mission states, for example:
Our Catholic identity is expressed in our choices of curricula, our sponsorship of programs and activities devoted to the cultivation of our religious character, our ecumenical outlook, and our support of Catholic beliefs and values.
Any viewpoint-based discrimination would be inconsistent with its statement that conflicts of opinion are “essential,” but given Marquette’s explicitly Catholic identity, hostility towards Catholic viewpoints is just bizarre.
Regular Torch readers might be thinking, “Haven’t I read this before?” Sadly, yes, you have.
Just last month, I reported on a Title IX training course for professors at Marquette University that suggested that two friends talking about their opposition to same-sex marriage, overheard by a third party, might constitute harassment. As I wrote at the time, a simple conversation about a personal belief, no matter how troubling it might be to others who hear it, falls far short of the legal standard for punishable harassment. Further, Professor McAdams reviewed a series of other examples from that training module of constitutionally protected expression that nevertheless was deemed inappropriate. Sadly, this recent incident is evidence that instructors are taking the kind of anti-speech attitude exhibited by that training course to heart and spreading it to their own classrooms.
It is disappointing to see another instance of speech being chilled at Marquette. Abbate’s statement to her students that “everybody agrees on” the issue of gay rights echoes the phenomenon that Fredrik deBoer called “We Are All Already Decided”:
This is the form of argument, and of comedy, that takes as its presumption that all good and decent people are already agreed on the issue in question. In fact, We Are All Already Decided presumes that the offense is not just in thinking the wrong thing you think but in not realizing that We Are All Already Decided that the thing you think is deeply ridiculous.
But historically, people have been “all already decided” on countless points that now sound outdated or barbaric. That’s one of the reasons why the principles of freedom of speech are so important. All issues must always be open for debate, particularly on college and university campuses. If not for this principle, LGBT people might not have the rights they do today.
According to McAdams, Abbate’s student accepted her invitation to drop the class, and university administrators failed to respond to the student’s complaint about the incident. McAdams aptly sums up this result:
[T]his student is rather outspoken and assertive about his beliefs. That puts him among a small minority of Marquette students. How many students, especially in politically correct departments like Philosophy, simply stifle their disagreement, or worse yet get indoctrinated into the views of the instructor, since those are the only ideas allowed, and no alternative views are aired?