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

University of St. Thomas campus exterior and sign

Ken Wolter /

When the College Republicans chapter at University of St. Thomas sought to host political commentator Michael Knowles, the university rejected the request.

The University of St. Thomas harmonizes free speech with its religious mission, laudably promising to give its full blessing to students’ expressive rights as part of its Catholic identity. Yet when the university’s College Republicans chapter sought to make good on this promise by requesting to host political commentator Michael Knowles, St. Thomas rejected the request because administrators didn’t like his views, thereby betraying the school’s commitment to free speech by violating the group’s right to host campus speakers.

When the St. Thomas College Republicans planned to bring Knowles to campus earlier this year, the university rejected the request because Knowles “made statements that are derogatory to the transgender and autistic community.” According to administrators, all campus speakers must “align with our St. Thomas Conviction Statements on dignity and diversity.” Knowles’ views apparently failed to accord. 

In FIRE’s June 28 letter to St. Thomas, we explained how the university’s viewpoint-based rejection of Knowles violates students’ expressive rights to host sinful, satanic, or even blasphemous speakers. Universities need not endorse every speaker students invite to campus — the diversity of campus speakers should be determined by inquisitive students, not inquisitorial administrators. If St. Thomas denied student groups’ speakers because someone may be offended, there would be precious few speakers allowed to address its student body.

St. Thomas promises free speech not just to its students, but also to its academic accreditors.

FIRE doesn’t normally write to religious schools for the simple reason that they seldom promise students free speech rights. We call these collegeswarningschools because they clearly prioritize other values above free speech, and students are forewarned that they surrender their expressive rights upon enrollment. If these schools want to punish students for shouting heresy in a crowded church, that’s their prerogative. 

St. Thomas may be religious, but it is not a warning school. Just the opposite — the university’s official, written policies demonstrate an unequivocal commitment to free speech. Further, this university considers free speech essential to its Catholic intellectual tradition, as expected at an institution named after Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of learning, scholars, schools, and students, canonized for his lifelong scholastic dedication to free inquiry and critical analysis. St. Thomas proudly boasts of its namesake’s “commitment to inquiry into the reasons and principles of things,” and devout belief that “Truth is found in the examination and synthesis of competing ideas.”

Not so, according to St. Thomas general counsel Abigail Crouse, who alleged in her response to FIRE’s letter that the university’s “policies make clear that it is not adopting a right to free expression that mirrors First Amendment rights at public institutions.” Crouse claimed the university “acted consistently with its policies and was well within its rights” when rejecting Knowles due to his “incendiary remarks.”

Let’s take a look at those policies. Judge the university’s reverence for free speech for yourself:

  • Student Bill of Rights: “Students have the right to freedom of expression . . . . The University of St. Thomas recognizes that free inquiry and free expression are indispensable elements for the achievement of the goals of an academic community.” 
  • Student Expression: “As an academic community, St. Thomas is committed to fostering an educational environment that promotes open dialogue and discussion; promotes the development, expression, exploration and evaluation of ideas; subjects ideas to critical thinking and rigorous analysis reflecting a diversity of perspectives.” 
  • Conviction Statements (the same one used to reject Knowles): “We value intellectual inquiry as a lifelong habit, the unfettered and impartial pursuit of truth in all its forms, the integration of knowledge across disciplines, and the imaginative and creative exploration of new ideas,” as well as “the power of ideas” and creating “meaningful dialogue directed toward the flourishing of human culture.” 

Any reasonable student reading these policies — or student group inviting a speaker in accordance with them — would believe their university promises free speech consistent with First Amendment principles of viewpoint neutrality. 

The University must decide which set of values are more important to them; its politically correct values or its Catholic ones.

St. Thomas promises free speech not just to its students, but also to its academic accreditors. In FIRE’s response to St. Thomas sent yesterday, we point out how the Higher Learning Commission, of which St. Thomas is a part, requires all accredited institutions to maintain and enforce a “commit[ment] to freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.” The commission is slated to conduct a “Comprehensive Evaluation” of St. Thomas’s fidelity to its accreditation promises next year, and FIRE is confident that the university would prefer to avoid official complaints about how it flouts its free speech commitment by violating students’ expressive rights.

“The University must decide which set of values are more important to them; its politically correct values or its Catholic ones,” said the College Republicans. “Free speech has never been more important and more worth fighting for. We hope St. Thomas will stand by its prior commitment to free speech and preserve its Catholic identity.”

St. Thomas has a choice. It can change its policies to make abundantly clear that its religious mission prevails over free speech. It can warn prospective students of excommunication if they nail 95 Theses to the president’s door. 

Or it can righteously live up to its free speech convictions and namesake by allowing students to host controversial campus speakers. We have faith it will choose the latter. 

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 faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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