Repression at St. Louis University · 28 September 2009

By John K. Wilson - College Freedom

David Horowitz and I rarely agree on anything. But we are in complete harmony on one point: it’s absolutely wrong for St. Louis University (SLU) officials to ban him from speaking on campus.

SLU College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation were planning to bring David Horowitz to speak on October 13. However, the Administration has banned the speech from taking place. SLU officials, including Dean of Students Scott Smith, has not responded to any of my requests for comment.

According to the College Republicans, Smith told them he would not allow the speech because Horowitz might “insinuate…that all people of the Islamic faith are fascists.” Horowitz wrote to the SLU officials, “The claim that I insinuate that all people of Islamic faith are fascists is a malicious falsehood.” Certainly, Horowitz doesn’t say that about all Muslims, just a lot of them. But the question of what Horowitz thinks is irrelevant to the issue of allowing him to speak. Insulting religious beliefs is part of an open debate of ideas. Imagine a speaker who maligned all Muslims by saying they are all banned from Heaven. This would be a nasty thing to say to Muslims, but it’s also orthodox Catholic doctrine.

St. Louis University may have the worst policy in the country about guest speakers. According to SLU, “Student organizations are permitted to invite speakers to campus with the approval of their organizational advisor and as long as they are consistent with the mission of Saint Louis University. Controversial speakers may be permitted with the approvals of the Department of Student Life and Campus Ministry. Speakers seeking election to a political office must receive the approval of Student Life and the University General Counsel.”

Just about everything is wrong with this policy. First of all, an advisor should be just an advisor, and not granted veto power. Second, not every speaker should be required to match the mission of the university. Third, “controversial speakers” are given a particular restraint and required to receive approval from both the ministry and student life. What, exactly, is SLU afraid to let students hear?

In 1967, a joint statement on student rights by the American Association of University Professors, the United States National Student Association (now the United States Student Association), the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities), the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and the National Association of Women Deans and Counselors declared: “Students should be allowed to invite and to hear any person of their own choosing….The institutional control of campus facilities should not be used as a device of censorship.”

St. Louis University is in direct violation of this excellent standard. It’s also in violation of its own Mission Statement, which declares that it “creates an academic environment that values and promotes free, active and original intellectual inquiry among its faculty and students.” You can’t promote free intellectual inquiry if you ban speakers with ideas you don’t like.

But SLU’s repressive policies on speakers go far beyond the ridiculous ridiculous listed online. According to Smith in a letter to the College Republicans, “the speaker’s policy includes a signature from the speaker not to engage in a speech that is inconsistent with or otherwise contradictory to the mission, beliefs, or ideals of the Catholic Church, the Jesuit Order, or Saint Louis University.” This is a stunning level of repression. For any speaker to promise in advance that they will not contradict any of the beliefs of the Catholic Church is appalling, especially since most good Catholics contradict at least a few of the beliefs of the Church. To require a speaker to promise not contradict any of the beliefs of Saint Louis University is particularly alarming.

Nor should religion be a viable excuse for censorship. It’s an insult to religious believers to treat them like children who must be protected from hearing offensive ideas. Too often, the Bible is just cover for power-hungry administrators who want to stifle controversy at every turn.

St. Louis University is no liberal institution. In 2007, SLU officials imposed greater controls over the student newspaper, including veto power over section editors, and forced out the advisor. Since 2007, the Vagina Monologues has been banned from being performed on campus. In 2008, efforts to perform another Eve Ensler play, A Memory, A Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer, were also banned a week before the scheduled performance.

One might argue that by banning conservative speech as well as liberal speech, this Catholic university university has become more catholic in its approach to censorship. But the problem with censorship isn’t that it’s unbalanced; the problem is that censorship exists at all.

One of the fundamental tenets of free speech is that it applies to everyone, including those who want to limit free speech. It’s certainly ironic that after asking universities last year for “the defunding of MSA [Muslim Student Association] chapters” because he doesn’t like their viewpoint, David Horowitz now finds himself banned by a conservative college for his viewpoint. But Horowitz’s call for repression on college campuses is absolutely no excuse for any attempt to suppress his speeches.

If the administration at SLU disagrees with Horowitz (and I hope they do), then they are free to express their opposition. They are free to attend Horowitz’s lecture and criticize him. They are free to boycott Horowitz’s lecture and denounce him. They are free to invite a speaker every day of the week to come to campus and refute what Horowitz says (I’ll volunteer to be first in line). But they are not free, in any university worthy of the name, to suppress a speaker because he is offensive and wrong.