In her critique of a perceived lack of substantive pluralism on campus, H*yas for Choice President Abby Grace (SFS ’16) appealed to the university, “Please don’t bestow a degree completely willingly upon someone who takes positions that we feel to be rather controversial and offensive.”

This plea concluded her attempt to defend free speech and the diversity of ideas on Georgetown’s campus following the controversial removal of HFC protesters from the front gates during Donald Cardinal Wuerl’s honorary degree ceremony. In Grace’s view, the university should not endorse moral claims that might give offense or start controversy.

In fact, this request to deny validation to “controversial and offensive” positions constitutes an insidious threat to the very free speech and public discourse that Grace was trying to defend. For students invested in a robust free speech policy, it is important to recognize the dangers posed by avoiding making moral claims for the sake of avoiding offense.

This suppression of morally positive claims often appears under the guise of “political correctness,” which claims to be morally neutral but in fact cannot escape making moral assertions.

Take, for instance, an institution that embraces environmentalism but claims this position is purely secular and amoral. Such a group might want to claim that its views are not charged with the kind of metaphysical angst that populates religious or moral ideas; it presents its views as purely scientific. However, no matter how conclusive scientific evidence of climate change is, there can be no “environmentalism” without the moral judgment that humans have a duty to be good stewards of the environment.

This pretension to moral neutrality is precisely what breeds intolerance, for when a group denies the moral quality of its principles, it removes them from the realm of intellectually tenable moral dissent. If the environmentalist claims that environmentalism is amoral, then it can enforce its views on others without guilt of coercion.

As such, the rise of this illiberal “liberalism” has the potential to destroy the classical liberal conception of freedom of speech. Only patently obvious moral or religious claims, such as the freedom to worship, will be protected, while secular claims that obscure their own moral groundings, such as environmentalism, sexism or LGBT rights, will be enforced without possibility of dissent.

This “error has no rights” outlook flattens discourse and establishes a superficial consensus. Thus, universities that do not recognize that their own policies constitute a moral judgment do more violence to students’ free speech than those who are aware of the moral character of their positions.

As a Catholic university, Georgetown does not pretend to be neutral on moral positions. It makes positive claims to some very controversial and potentially offensive positions, positions held as true by the Church based on the teachings of scripture and tradition. However, the refusal to claim neutrality on these positions does not hinder discourse; rather, it opens dialogue by presenting one view.

It is precisely Georgetown’s Catholic identity that both allows Georgetown to invite Cardinal Wuerl to receive an honorary degree and encourages students to discuss openly his beliefs.

Importantly, by asserting the existence of truth, Georgetown’s moral claims endow the process of intelligently seeking truth through dialogue with a high degree of dignity. On other campuses, freedom of speech may exist merely for the sake of letting students express opinions; at Georgetown, freedom of speech is necessarily endowed with the weight of the search for truth. It is a freedom for inquiry into the truth of things.

GUPD has since apologized for removing HFC from a public sidewalk, and I defer to university policy on this particular issue. But there is a much more pernicious threat to free speech than the issue of when and where students are allowed to table.

Denying the university the ability to affirm positive moral claims has the unintended consequence of limiting the free speech of students. Rather, in taking a clear position on moral claims, Georgetown invites discourse about the morality that necessarily underpins the many positions of its students.

Evelyn Flashner is a senior in the College.

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11 Comments

  1. Concerned student says:

    Excellent article Evelyn. Couldn’t agree more.

  2. You raise a fair point about moral neutrality. Georgetown, as a Catholic institution, absolutely has the right to confer an honorary degree on any individual it sees fit and the right to promote one point of view. It shouldn’t have the right to actively suppressthe rights of the student community to dissent from the opinions of the Church and the University administration. I’m not sure why you think the push for “moral neutrality” and political correctness, every right-winger’s favorite bogeyman are more “pernicious threats” to free speech than the active suppression of a student group’s right to assemble, speak, or protest, even when that group doesn’t receive official support or funding.

  3. Another Student says:

    This op ed is pretty full of straw men…

  4. So Evelyn, simple question: would you allow HFC to protest? Simple question, simple answer. You “defer to university policy,” but you don’t actually give a willing answer.

  5. “while secular claims that obscure their own moral groundings, such as environmentalism, sexism or LGBT rights, will be enforced without possibility of dissent.”

    what the fuck? will sexism be enforced without possibility of dissent by a liberal mafia? does that make sense to you?

    and do you really think that anyone out there is enforcing environmentalism without possibility of dissent? this is 2014 in America. everyone in this country seems to care as little about the environment as you do.

    to the lgbt thing – alright, catholic schoolgirl. grow the fuck up. gays is ok, despite what the priest in 7th grade say.

  6. appalled student says:

    I hope I’m not the only one who sees the intense hypocrisy of this article

  7. It’s a good article Evelyn. Georgetown is a Catholic institution. Always be tenacious for the truth. Don’t be deceived. Remember Jesus said, “I am the way, truth and life.” From a grandma

  8. I just want to reply to some of the comments made by “Yo,”

    “and do you really think that anyone out there is enforcing environmentalism without possibility of dissent? this is 2014 in America. everyone in this country seems to care as little about the environment as you do.”

    I want to urge people to think about this a different way.

    If there is no moralizing claim behind a movement, what incentive is there for people who do not care about the movement to take up the cause? The data that says the world is getting warmer isn’t what drives the core of environmentalist activism. The moralizing claim of a movement is what gives it power and strength.

    To think about the LGBTQ community. As “Yo” puts it,

    “to the lgbt thing – alright, catholic schoolgirl. grow the fuck up. gays is ok, despite what the priest in 7th grade say.”

    A more respectful way to phrase the same sentence: “The Church teaching that homosexual sex is a sin is wrong; sex should not have to be solely for the purpose of reproduction within the bounds of sacramental marriage.”

    The previous sentence is a MORAL claim. Morality (according to google) is a set of principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. This article is trying to bring out the fact that frequently, liberal movements try to make moral claims amoral. I would claim that for liberals to deny the inherent morality of the beliefs we hold is to fail to live up to the call of the movement. There is no room for relativism in what is a deeply moral and principled system of belief. Intellectual liberals know that the surface proclamations of our movement are backed up by mountains of moral philosophy. We have a responsibility to keep the work of liberal moral philosophers alive, and to use their claims about moral truth to argue on the same plane as conservatives.

    Discussions about social issues are almost always discussions about what is right and wrong. The language of science and secularism are important in supporting moral claims, however, it is important to recognize that when we talk about moral issues, we should be talking about what is right and wrong to produce fruitful discussion. Hiding in the shadows of moral relativism only serves to hinder discourse because an argument made from this perspective will have very little ability to change the mind of someone who participates in discourse in order to better know the truth about what is right and wrong. People should not feel shy about making moralizing claims, because there are almost always legitimate moral arguments to make. When we begin talking about the same thing, using the same language, is the moment genuine discourse begins.

    • For something like LGBTQ rights, it seems to me that using the “same language” often times means accepting principles taught by the Church that are themselves debatable. For instance, “The Church teaching that homosexual sex is a sin is wrong; sex should not have to be solely for the purpose of reproduction within the bounds of sacramental marriage.”

      The Church does indeed teach that. Do you think that should be common language, that what the Church teaches is unequivocally correct?

      Marriage is apparently sacramental. Do you think that should be common language, that marriage must be “sacramental” and inherently religious?

      A lot of the comments on this article sort of just wave off Evelyn’s beliefs, which isn’t great and is counterproductive. At the same time, however, the basis of anti-gay arguments is ultimately that sex is supposed to be to produce children because the Bible said so. How would you respond to the belief that sex is okay for non-reproductive purposes (and 95% of Catholic women who take contraceptives may or may not disagree)? If you have an argument that doesn’t ultimately end in “because the Bible said so,” I’d be interested in hearing it.

  9. another student says:

    This piece is a breath of fresh air. Thank you

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