Guest speaker Charles Rice, law professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, is known to support traditional Catholic teaching on same-sex marriage and abortion. law.nd.edu

Catholics have the right to free speech in the public square

  • March 27, 2012

The issue of free speech on university campuses comes up almost every year. Over the past five years at least half-a-dozen student pro-life clubs have faced restrictions, outright bans or the threat of bans. Controversy around their speaking events, including the shutting down of speakers, is not uncommon.

In recent years presentations by conservative speakers have been cancelled or moved off campus due to “security concerns.” Meanwhile, pro-choice and other very liberal speakers are usually welcomed on the same campuses, suggesting the issue with conservative speakers is less about security than about their unpopular and presumably unwanted viewpoints.

The objections aren’t always raised by students. In 2010 and 2011 the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) stated that it was a restriction on academic freedom to require faculty at evangelical and other universities to sign faith statements. In that case, none of the targeted universities had ever been the subject of a complaint on the subject. Given that their faith commitment was already well known, it’s difficult to infer any motive other than anti-religious bias in the CAUT’s campaign.

A small number of professors at Ryerson University gave a striking example of how not to express disagreement when they attended the convocation in 2006 that awarded an honorary degree to Margaret Somerville. They rose and turned their backs on her when she spoke. Dr. Somerville, director of the McGill University Centre for Bioethics, opposes same-sex marriage and had testified to that effect before a parliamentary committee.

Against this background, perhaps no one should have been surprised when the recent Pascal Lecture at the University of Waterloo drew protests from professors and students. Guest speaker Charles Rice, law professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, is known to support traditional Catholic teaching on same-sex marriage and abortion.

By planning ahead, having sufficient police on hand and generally beefing up security, the event managed to combine the right to speak with the right to peaceful protest. Some reports say there were roughly as many people inside the lecture theatre as protesting outside. The talk itself focused on natural law and the nature of conscience, and contained little direct content about the topics that sparked the protest.

The fact that both the speech and the protest went ahead in peace is commendable, obviously. But for anyone who cares about the place of Catholic teaching in the public square, and particularly in academic environments, the incident is still troubling on a number of levels.

One student wrote to the local newspaper that “to have a man known to speak on morality in this way come to campus to speak about morality makes us feel unsafe…we are scared and hurt, and feeling unprotected by the university administration.” We’ve come to a curious place if the espousal of a viewpoint that was mainstream only a few decades ago gives the young a sense of personal peril.

Again, it isn’t always the students. A protester who self-identified as a practicing Catholic says she “cannot conceive of anybody in this day and age talking the way he talks. . .  I thought we had a society that was accepting of everyone.”

In view of the fact that she was protesting the expression of views different from her own, let’s assume the irony of her statements escaped her.

Rice, who noted that he respected the protesters and admired their tenacity, is no stranger to campus controversies. He was among the Catholics who opposed Notre Dame’s decision to grant an honorary degree to Barack Obama and his selection to give the 2009 convocation address. It was because of Rice’s more politically-oriented views, as well as his strictly orthodox Catholic viewpoints, that some professors at St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo expressed concern about the choice of Rice as a guest speaker, and held a seminar after his departure to focus on Christian tolerance and inclusivity. 

Free speech survived this particular protest. But the events and comments raised considerable concern about the state of knowledge of Church teaching by many who should know it, and the right to hear a complete range of views on campus. Only a strong commitment to academic freedom for all — including believers — can help maintain this important right.

(McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.)