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FIRE calls on the Higher Learning Commission to take University of St. Thomas to church over free speech violations

When the College Republicans sought to bring political commentator Michael Knowles to campus, administrators rejected the request because Knowles “has made statements that are derogatory to the transgender and autistic community.
Daily Wire host Michael Knowles speaking at a podium

Noe Padilla / Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Daily Wire host Michael Knowles speaks to an audience of around 400 people inside Purdue University s Memorial Union ballroom, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in West Lafayette, Indiana.

The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota vets for alignment with a litany of ideological criteria every single speaker whom students seek to invite to campus. When the College Republicans sought to bring political commentator Michael Knowles to campus in February 2022, administrators rejected the request because Knowles “has made statements that are derogatory to the transgender and autistic community.”

Does that sound like a school dedicated to free speech? 

When universities promise free speech but practice censorship, they must be held accountable. Last week, FIRE filed an official complaint to the Higher Learning Commission, which requires accredited institutions like St. Thomas to be “committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.” We asked the HLC to have St. Thomas adopt a content-neutral policy and practice of processing student group speaker requests. This would allow students to host a diversity of speakers on campus, not just those preferred by the university.

In our complaint, we explained that being committed to free speech means allowing a variety of speakers on campus, even those expressing views abhorrent to administrators. After all, freedom of expression rings hollow if it includes only content palatable to the most sensitive among us. Why have free speech if students can only talk about the boring, the mild, and the milquetoast? 

University of St. Thomas campus exterior and sign

University of St. Thomas promises free speech, yet practices censorship by denying College Republicans request to host Michael Knowles


Despite its promises of free speech, St. Thomas rejected the College Republicans’ request to host political commentator Michael Knowles because of his views.

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When we first raised this issue with St. Thomas, the university doubled down on its viewpoint discrimination. “An internet search revealed examples of incendiary remarks by Mr. Knowles toward people who identify as transgender and people with autism,” explained St. Thomas General Counsel Abigail Crouse, adding “St. Thomas does not invite speakers who have a clear history of showing disrespect toward marginalized people.”

St. Thomas, a private institution, may hold other values such as religious tenets above free speech. But it has not chosen to do so. Instead, it promises students “the right to freedom of expression” because it “recognizes that free inquiry and free expression are indispensable elements for the achievement of the goals of an academic community.” Further, the university asserts it is “committed to fostering an educational environment that promotes open dialogue and discussion” and “the unfettered and impartial pursuit of truth in all its forms.” 

Any reasonable student reading these policies would believe administrators would refrain from rejecting a speaker solely because they disliked his views.

The HLC has a golden opportunity to hold St. Thomas accountable to what its policies preach. FIRE calls on the HLC to afford St. Thomas students the full opportunity to present a wide range of views and to decide for themselves whether to attend any given expressive event. 

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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