Last week, Reverend Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., the president of DePaul University, prevented a College Republicans poster bearing the phrase “Unborn Lives Matter” from being displayed on campus.
According to Holtschneider’s open letter to the DePaul community, the poster constituted “bigotry . . . under the cover of free speech” that “provokes the Black Lives Matter movement.” Linda Brown Blakely, vice president of public relations and communications at DePaul, tells National Review that the banner in question “was, at best deceptive, and the words, font, colors, and design clearly were intended to do a disservice to the Black Lives Matter and pro-life movements.” Both Holtschneider and Blakely cited the university document “Guiding Principles on Speech and Expression,” which draws a “distinction between being provocative and being hurtful” and states that “speech whose primary purpose is to wound is inconsistent with our Vincentian and Catholic values.”
“It has to stand out somehow if it’s going to hang there,” Burkhart added. “I decided to use a fairly simple, black-and-white design, with this three-word phrase [Unborn Lives Matter.] Yes, the style resembles the Black Lives Matter slogan and the way they tend to design it, but that was in an effort to make it stand out and to get people to look at it.” John Minster, a sophomore at DePaul and vice president of the College Republicans, agrees with Burkhart. He says the posters were merely meant “to promote our meetings, our presence on campus, and our values.”
“[The administration] constantly claims to know what our intentions are without ever asking us . . . or doing any sort of digging to figure out what we were thinking along the way,” Burkhart explains. “If we do something they don’t like, they assume we had bad intentions.” He also says that no one in the administration asked him or other club members what their intentions were either before or after the decision was made to ban the posters.
“The poster had nothing to do with what I think about Black Lives Matter,” Burkhart says. “All it was was a commentary about abortion, explaining that College Republicans are pro-life and we think unborn lives matter. So this idea that we’re mocking anyone is ridiculous.”
This isn’t the first incident to make DePaul’s free-speech restrictions seem overwhelmingly one-sided.
This isn’t the first incident to make DePaul’s free-speech restrictions seem overwhelmingly one-sided. In late July, the university banned conservative commentator Ben Shapiro from speaking on campus, citing “security concerns” related to the event. But Holtschneider’s letter from last week seemed to imply that the decision to ban Shapiro was made with a mind toward preventing “bigotry,” rather than keeping the campus safe.
Minster notes that several university offices at DePaul display Black Lives Matter signs, and a number of “extreme” flyers for left-wing social-justice events are permitted on campus. “In just the last six months, this ‘Catholic’ university has prohibited partisan political chalking, allowed protesters to raid an event, banned speakers from campus entirely, and now prohibited a pro-life flyer,” he says. “There is seemingly no step this cowardly administration won’t take to suppress free speech. . . . If the University is going to haphazardly hand out trademarks on phrases to ‘protected classes,’ they should make that clear to incoming students who actually value free speech.”
Burkhart says that DePaul’s ongoing speaker series on race and free speech so far has featured a number of individuals who all, to a greater or lesser extent, have advocated restricting free speech when it could be construed as hurtful to minority groups. “DePaul is really big on defending marginalized students, so it’s really ironic that they would write this entire statement calling those in our club bigots and attempting to marginalize us for what we believe.”
As a private, Catholic university, DePaul is not explicitly obliged to respect students’ free-speech rights like a public university would be. But it is disturbing that the university would choose not to do so, and even more disturbing that DePaul’s administration justified their decision by invoking the university’s “Catholic values.” It is hard to believe that the phrase “Unborn Lives Matter” is in violation of a Catholic university’s values when, in fact, this phrase ought to embody them.This is not the first time that DePaul’s administration has been confused about the proper application of its Catholic guidelines. For instance, one of the university’s 2016 commencement speakers was Martin Castro, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who in his professional capacity has advocated same-sex marriage and radical gender theory, and opposed religious-freedom legislation that would have enabled Catholic institutions to uphold their values. DePaul was also found to have referred students to jobs and internships at Planned Parenthood, and to have promoted social-media posts celebrating the Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
While it is the university administration’s prerogative to take these actions — even though they openly conflict with established Church doctrine — it is appalling that the same administration would invoke its Catholic principles to ban pro-life flyers from campus. It is evident that Holtschneider and his staff are intent upon silencing conservative student voices, even if they must wield their Catholic identity as a cudgel to do so.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.