Free Speech and the College Campus: A Good Idea?

St. Thomas More, Martyr to Freedom of Conscience

What Would Thomas Do?
What Would Thomas Do?

Is it reasonable for a college to prevent those from speaking with whom they disagree?


God Forbid That Anyone Should Ever Have To Hear An Opinion Contrary To Her Own

On 15 October 2008, St. Thomas More College in Crestview Hill, KY, cancelled a 22 October visit by Libertarian Presidential candidate, Bob Barr. These things happen. It could have been a scheduling conflict, it could have been an unforeseeable interruption in either Mr. Barr's plans or the school's. It could have been many things, but it wasn't.

It was one thing and one thing only, evidently - the Roman Catholic college, took advice from Bishop Roger Foys and arrived at the following conclusion, communicated on the school's website: "The decision to cancel the speaking engagement is based on Barr's positions on some life issues that are not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church." (

Patrick Crowley, in an online article for The Cincinnati Enquirer, says, "Barr, a former Republican member of Congress from Georgia, was scheduled to speak Oct. 22 as part of a broader political roundtable at the Crestview Hills college." (

Presumably, the objectives of this roundtable involved far more issues than abortion, as Mr. Barr is running for President of the United States and abortion is not exactly the defining theme - or even a defining theme - of our present national difficulties, which range from economic issues to the taxpayer funded bailout to the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq, issues of civil liberties, and defense of The Constitution in a time of war and panic.

Crowley further reports, "According to the Libertarian Party's Web site, Barr has taken positions that appear consistent with abortion opponents." However, the Libertarian Party platform plainly states: ‘"Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration,"' and this may have been the position with which Bishop Foys and St. Thomas More College President, Benedictine Sister Margaret Stallmeyer had their "difficulty" -- a difficulty of such magnitude they disallowed a presidential candidate from speaking on the campus of their private college about matters having nothing to do with abortion.

What Is The Role Of A College, Public Or Private, In A Free Society?

I am unwilling to argue whether or not a private college has the legal right to ban speakers. Legally, in all probability, they do - tradition and precedent say so. That difficulty is moot.

For my part, I wonder whether a school, any school, has the moral right to silence a speaker, as long as that speaker abides by rules of civility and participates in speech in an appropriate forum. From my point of view, morality trumps law in that it is of more weight and human importance, closer to human life, and deals with issues that are essential to our core needs as rational beings.

Laws exist mainly to protect us from governments and institutions and neighbors who lack self-control and good manners. Legally, we are allowed to do many, many things, or not required to pay attention to other things because law does not exist to tell us how to live or live well.

Ethics, on the other hand, is all about learning how to live well, treat oneself and others well, and it is about living up to the challenge of all manner of standards and virtues - things beyond law, more than law, more intimate than the legal code. Law exists to guarantee our freedom from unjustifiable force; morality exists to demand we use our freedom responsibly and with dignity, to live in excellence as good citizens and good examples of humanity.

The law cannot force a private institution such as a college to allow people to speak and exchange ideas, expose its students to a variety of points of view. But morality can, and I think does, demand it. It should be done. Because the nature of a college or university - the reason why such things exist in free societies - is to collect, discuss, question, and disseminate ideas, a wide variety of ideas, especially those that a student must face, will inevitably face outside the high ivied walls of the academy.

To be certain, ideas such as those espoused in The Libertarian Party's platform will be found by any intelligent student as she lives and votes - how much better if she'd been exposed to those ideas on a college campus where she could thoroughly examine them and learn to rationally compare them with the official beliefs of the institution?

How much better if the college was interested in helping their students learn how to think clearly and effectively against a rich background of history than teaching them what specifically to think and protecting them from ideas the institution disagrees with?

How much better if the college had been interested in helping their students develop an informed and reasonable consciences capable of making informed, reasonable, and independent choices than demanding they memorize dogma while hiding their young charges from anyone or anything that does not have the correct doctrinal pedigree?

Listening To The Example Of A Philosopher

Jose Ortega y Gasset, the great philosopher and greatest Spanish humanist intellectual of the 20th century, was once asked to deliver a public address on The Mission of the University. His conception of the university is wonderful and multifaceted, as are all of his theories. I may explore those themes on a different occasion. Presently, I am interested in his opening remarks - Ortega was a subtle thinker and every line, every utterance contains depths and weights that are not immediately discernable. They require meditation and reflection to fully grasp. In those remarks, he is already talking about the hope of the university, why it is we make institutions of learning at all in the first place, but he does this in the guise of a personal confession:

"...I come with great enthusiasm, but small faith. For it is clear that these are two different things. Man would be badly off, indeed, if he were incapable of enthusiasm except for the things in which he has faith! Humanity would still be pursuing its existence in a hole in the ground; for everything that has made it possible to emerge from the cave and the primeval jungle appeared in its first hour as a highly dubious undertaking. Nevertheless, man has been able to grow enthusiastic over his vision of these unconvincing enterprises. *** Beyond all doubt it is one of the vital sources of man's power, to be thus able to kindle enthusiasm from the mere glimmer of something improbable, difficult, remote. The other sort of enthusiasm, cradled comfortably by faith, is hardly worth the name, because it is sure of its success at the outset. *** One must go into any kind of struggle prepared for anything, including calamity and defeat... too much security demoralizes men more than anything else." (The Mission of the University, pgs. 3-4)

I quote this at length because I think Bishop Foys and President Sister Stallmayer (and many others) would do well to read and grasp what's being said: It is not by making your students comfortable, not by giving them the illusion of safety, not by protecting them and swaddling them in any sort of faith (religious or otherwise) that their minds will expand, their spirits ignite, and their souls be enriched, but by allowing them to face the radical danger of ideas.

Ideas are dangerous - the most volatile and powerful substanceless substances in existence. They are fraught with danger; they are as much invitations to error as knowledge, as open to misinterpretation as understanding, and as capable of being misapplied as correctly applied. Humanity's greatest triumphs and its most dismal horrors have their origins in ideas and in thinking - or in attempting to do without ideas and clear thinking and live only with prejudices and reassurances and myths.

The university, the college campus is the temple of ideas, the place where they are visited and where they come to visit - not because we necessarily have faith in them, but because we have an enthusiasm for examining them, disassembling them, finding their strengths and weaknesses, wondering how or whether they may be applied, whether they need to be re-thought, re-considered, re-combined with other concepts.

If ideas are like bombs, universities are the assembly plants, the ordinance ranges, and the experimental labs that design them. No idea should be foreign to a college campus in a free society - it is the imperative of the college to invite them and those who represent them in to a never-ending dialectic.

People get blown apart working in munitions factories; there can be casualties: People just as often develop strange notions after exposure to a variety of ideas - some even become horribly skeptical or devolve into glassy-eyed fideists who never question anything ever again the rest of their days. Some may go into the world and feel justified doing truly terrible things, just as some will take the same ideas and become extremely creative and beneficial in their own lives, the lives of others, the life of their community.

Like the man said, the possibility of calamity and defeat are the prerequisites of success and excellence in any meaningful pursuit.

A college exists to teach its students how to ask good questions and do it well, not rest comfortably in a warm bed of predigested beliefs, things that never cause their souls a moment of trouble. Education is about living a dangerous and uncomfortable life, or one in which danger and discomfort are prepared for by steady exposure.

The mission of a college is to take the risk and teach their students how to juggle ideas, how to face and judge the variety of conceptions about all things, including abortion rights, that they will encounter as adults. The college must take the risk that their students will not judge as the school desires or recommends... in part, because a genuine institution of learning must always admit it may not be the sole repository of truth on any question. And it must be strong enough to accept that very human reality as it teaches and guides its students.

A Final Irony

St. Thomas More, the gentleman after whom the college in question was named, died for the sake of his conscience. He was, in fact, martyred in the cause of conscience, in the cause of daring to ask questions and form his own judgments, his refusal to agree to beliefs which ran contrary to his well-considered convictions.

Certainly, he had his failings - he did burn a few heretics in his day, as that was part of his job as Lord Chancellor; that was the unfortunate cultural climate.

But More was also a fine humanist scholar, thinker, and writer - the epitome of the term Renaissance Man. His book, Utopia included a society based on the idea of what, for his day, was quite an advanced notion: near complete religious tolerance. In his private life, in an age when women were treated as little more than child-bearing property, he educated his wife and daughters as if they were men and respected their intelligences and opinions. He loved his children and enjoyed their casual letters when he was abroad. For a man of the 15th and 16th centuries, he was unusual.

I daresay, for a man of the 21st century, he'd be unusual.

I'd like to think that if St. Thomas More were present in spirit at the college that bears his name, and not simply present as a sort of holy brand name, he might inspire the bishop and the good sister who run the institution to reconsider their approaches to education and to the issues of conscience, tolerance, and freedom of thought and opinion.

As it is, I think they're deaf to the fellow and his high example.

If you're going to take a man's name, you might want to think of living up to his standards.

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Comments 2 comments

Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 7 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Thank you, Chef Jeff. Your position and mine seem the same. I don't support any group or individual, including Nazis or Klansmen, who both want the right to speak -- which, as distatseful as it is, is legitimately theirs -- while at the same time wanting to silence others. That is NOT free spech, but barbarism. The right to free speech entails practicing it in a civil fashion, with a proper measure of respect for others when they exercise their right.

Thank you for your insights!


Chef Jeff profile image

Chef Jeff 7 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

In my freshman year at college Twilight Zone writer and creator Rod Serling spoke at the school and I was going to cover his appearance for the school newspaper.

Some guy from the sudience stood up at the start of Mr. Serling's speech and disrupted the entire procedings, and Mr. Serling left the stage. This one, lone kook protested Twilight Zone as a Satanic TV show and screamed and shouted to stop a speaker from talking with more than 200 interested students in the audience.

while living in Europe I listened to spekers of all political views and never once thog=ught to shout and interrupt. I have great respect for views that differe from my own, and even if I do not agree with what is being said, I want to listen,

The only exception was when the NAZI party & KKK demonstrated in Dubuque, Iowa, and that was because they had come to shout down another event. In that case I found it easy to defend the original speakers from this intrusion by a group that came only to disrupt the procedings.

Great hub!


Chef Jeff

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