Recently, the DePaul University administration came under fire for banning College Republicans’ “Unborn Lives Matter,” poster, claiming it fostered “bigotry.” DePaul is the largest Catholic university in the US, and in recent years, the university has consistently been cited for violating students’ First Amendment right to free speech. The university’s latest offense not only undermines its Catholic teaching, but also reveals a broader threat to free speech at universities across the nation.
The banned poster depicted the words “Unborn Lives Matter,” formatted in the same fashion as the Black Lives Matter logo. According to the DePaul College Republicans vice president John Minster, the club submitted their poster for approval to hang it around campus, and the request was sifted all the way up to the University President, Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider. President Holtschneider did not approve the poster design, calling it “bigotry” disguised as free speech. In an email to the entire University, President Holtschneider states,
“Yet there will be times when some forms of speech challenge our grounding in Catholic and Vincentian values. When that happens, you will see us refuse to allow members of our community to be subjected to bigotry that occurs under the cover of free speech.”
In contrast, the College Republican member who designed the poster asserted that he did not intend to hurt anyone, but wanted to make the poster stand out among a sea of advertisements.
DePaul’s prohibition of the College Republicans’ poster presents two troubling issues. First, the University is suppressing the pro-life message, a message that the Catholic Church fully supports and advocates. The ideas of a right to life and protection of the unborn are basic and fundamental Catholic values. Throughout history, the Church has steadfastly stood by their pro-life stance. What kind of message is Rev. Holtschneider sending by silencing this pro-life message? Additionally, not only is the University making a statement that conflicts with Catholic beliefs, they are using the values of Catholicism to defend their actions. As the largest Catholic university in the nation, DePaul should be embracing its role as a leader of Catholic teaching and education, defending all notions of the dignity and sanctity of human life.
Furthermore, the suppression of speech at DePaul points towards the troubling violations of the First Amendment at universities across the country. In his statement, President Holtschneider effectually said that the pro-life poster is “bigotry” aimed at the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement the University fully supports. The University certainly has the right to support the Movement, and in fact it should support peaceful student protests as a way of letting students exercise their First Amendment right. Therefore, if they promote free speech, why not support the College Republicans’ pro-life message? President Holtschneider argues that the “Unborn Lives Matter” statement “provokes” members of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yes, the poster may make members of the Black Lives Matter movement feel uncomfortable, but surely there are students on campus who believe “All Lives Matter” and feel uneasy about the Black Lives Matter movement. The Constitution does not ensure the right to feel comfortable in all situations, but it does ensure the right of all Americans to speak their minds.
In recent years, American universities have continuously suppressed students’ and professors’ right to freedom of speech. This has resulted in the perpetuation of “safe spaces” and the “trigger warning” culture. As both a believer in the rule of the Constitution and a college student, this flagrant disregard for the First Amendment is extremely worrisome. Traditionally, universities have been a bastion for new ideas and diverse opinions. They are places where one can push boundaries and norms, fostering innovation and positive change. Intellectual stimulation and controversial ideas are part of the purpose and experience of universities and also part of what makes them so special. In disagreement, tension, and friction, minds are challenged and new ideas are born.
Of course, sometimes students will encounter concepts and opinions that make them feel uncomfortable or are contrary to what they believe in, and that is okay. In fact, students should welcome these instances. Occasionally, I find myself at odds with what a professor is saying or a message that a group on campus is promoting; sometimes I even find these statements offensive to my beliefs and heritage. However, I respect the right of people and groups to make these statements, and I take advantage of the opportunity to sharpen my belief and argument as to why what they are saying is wrong. Personally, and I like to believe that the majority of students would agree with me, I want to be presented with concepts that are disagreeable to me because they force me to think in a different way; they force me to see things in a new light. It is precisely in this moment of uneasiness and conflict of opinion that new ideas are formed, sparking change and innovation in society. If everyone agreed all of the time, there would be no need for progressivity.
Currently, our country is going through a time of trial. This election is sure to have lasting effects, and our universities are currently educating those who are going to have to make sense of the consequences in years to come. Now more than ever, students should be demanding a diversity of ideas at our universities so that they are well prepared to lead our nation and positively influence the future. Likewise, universities must stick to their role and purpose. It is imperative that religious colleges, including DePaul, sense their obligation to defend and promote their religious values. Universities everywhere must promulgate an environment for students where their beliefs are challenged and their minds are opened to new concepts, stimulating change and growth.