Culture

DePaul University Shuts Out Ben Shapiro, and Free Speech ― Where Are the Trustees?

(Prasit Rodphan/Dreamstime)
They are in a position to step up when the university administration steps down.

Last week, DePaul University banned conservative commentator Ben Shapiro from speaking on campus. “Given the experiences and security concerns that some other schools have had with Ben Shapiro speaking on their campuses, DePaul cannot agree to allow him to speak on our campus at this time,” Bob Janis, the university’s vice president of facilities operations, wrote in an e-mail to the executive board of the DePaul chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, which sponsored Shapiro’s planned appearance. See the article by John Minster, vice chairman of DePaul’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter, in the Daily Wire.

Reports of decisions by university administrations to violate or not defend the First Amendment are approaching critical mass, and a governing body that has the power to defend free speech, the trustees, is largely silent. The DePaul trustees must uphold their fiduciary role and defend the First Amendment rights of DePaul students. They could cite chapter and verse of their own mission statement, which includes an endorsement of “the interplay of diverse value systems beneficial to intellectual inquiry.” When some student groups insist on restricting the free expression of other students on campus, boards of trustees have a solemn duty to remind feckless administrators of core principles.

As a Catholic institution, and therefore a private institution, DePaul University does not have a public university’s direct constitutional obligation to uphold the First Amendment. However, “private colleges and universities are contractually bound to respect the promises they make to students,” as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has noted. “They may not be bound by the First Amendment, but private institutions are still legally obligated to provide what they promise. Private institutions may not engage in fraud or breach of contract.” Held to its own standards, therefore, DePaul’s recent decision violates its own contractual relationship with its students, since it promises that it “affirms the right of speakers to voice their viewpoints, even at the risk of controversy.”

On its website, DePaul University boasts that it upholds civic principles. In a TED talk, Father Edward Udovic, the secretary of the university and senior executive for university mission, vehemently positions DePaul as an institution founded on the principles of inclusion in response to “an American higher-educational system which defines itself on who it excludes.” DePaul administrators would do well to consult Father Udovic and their institution’s mission statement.

Clearly, unwilling to maintain its principle of protecting “diverse value systems,” DePaul has decided to protect some speech but not all. Last year, the university allowed the Students for Justice in Palestine to hold a fundraising event for Rasmea Odeh, a convicted terrorist who was sentenced to life in prison by an Israeli court in 1970 for the murder of two Hebrew University students in a grocery-store bombing. Odeh was later released in a prisoner exchange after serving part of her life sentence. The campus fundraiser was to cover Odeh’s legal fees in an ongoing court battle over her false answers on her U.S. visa and naturalization applications. Apparently, for the DePaul administration, fundraising for a convicted terrorist does not violate the Catholic mission of the university in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul, but a speech by Shapiro, a pro-life Orthodox Jew, does.

#share#If DePaul, with a charter from the Vincentian order, wants to become the first Catholic university in America to welcome fundraisers for jihadists but ban pro-life conservatives, its trustees might want to consider revising their mission accordingly, although it would take exceptionally innovative casuistry for them to make such a case. However, if it wants students and the American public to give credence to its ostensibly long-standing principles, members of the board must dedicate themselves to fulfilling the university’s moral and legal obligation to intellectual diversity, which is essential to freedom of intellectual inquiry.

The board of trustees at DePaul and at other institutions, both public and private, should look to the University of Chicago, whose Committee on Free Expression holds up a statement by Geoffrey R. Stone, a Chicago law professor and former provost:

Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

The freedom of speech and of the exchange of ideas exists not to protect consensus but to protect dissent.

No doubt Shapiro’s ideas are inconvenient for many university students and administrators. But freedom of expression is a principle, not a trendy convenience. It endures independent of pressures of expedience. Universities, regardless of students’ religious, political, or cultural sympathies, have a duty to instruct students to make arguments, not chill them. Boards of trustees must engage their universities’ student bodies, faculty, and administrations and take up their responsibility to defend, whatever the cost, a diversity of ideas on campus. If they do not, the American university will be the catalyst for the failure of the American experiment in democratic republicanism.

#related#In the mid 19th century, John Hughes, archbishop of New York, faced down the violence of anti-Catholic nativists and Know-Nothings. Hughes knew that American ideals were complementary to the immigrant experience and that they must be defended tooth and claw. In 1858, Hughes laid the cornerstone of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue without incident. DePaul University trustees must ensure that it likewise delivers on its promise of true inclusion and diversity by defending the principle of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment.

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