Thursday, October 3, 2019
As Alexandra DeSanctis and others have reported, there was at Notre Dame recently an unfortunate series of connected incidents -- involving an outdoor poster display, then a poem of sorts in the student newspaper, and also a performance-art video posted online -- of what I think can fairly be called anti-Catholic hate speech. You can read DeSanctis's article for the details, but -- in a nutshell -- in addition to contending that various writers, publications, and organizations have "blood on their hands" by virtue of writings and activities that support and defend Catholic theology, morality, and anthropology, the performers/authors of the attacks engaged in what can reasonably be regarded as a kind of fantasy about inflicting violence (using a crowbar) against the offending writers, some of whom are their fellow students.
These incidents are particularly upsetting, not only because the attacks aim at the University's animating and foundational Catholic mission and commitments, but also because Notre Dame has been (thankfully) relatively untouched by the fever-swamp excesses of our overly politicized and excessively polarized academic culture.
Although Notre Dame is a private institution, and not subject to the First Amendment's constraints, it's my view that, as a general matter, "Chicago statement"-type rules and norms should be observed by students, faculty, and administrators. As important as civility and charity are, I am inclined to agree with the Chicago Statement that "[a]lthough the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community." At the same time -- and while I reject the tendency to equate "discourse" with "violence" and the claim that criticism and disagreement make one "unsafe" -- it seems clear that actual threats of or incitements to violence are not only legally unprotected (while "hate speech" is), they are also morally excludable, and punishable, even in a university setting.
It's too bad (or, perhaps, it is fitting?) that this week is also Respect Life Week at Notre Dame (and at many other places). Even as the spirit of community and care -- the Week's theme is "authentic love, authentic freedom" -- was attacked by the series of hate-speech incidents, this beautiful student-led week of prayer, speakers, celebration, and conversation reminds us of the radical Christian call to solidarity and of the radical Christian claims regarding human dignity and equality. Here's hoping hearts and minds -- including those of the people who engaged in the expressive attacks -- will be touched and healed.