Truth and the golden calf of free speech

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Photo courtesy of Mental Floss

When resisting “Cancel Culture,” one may find it easy to make an idol of free speech. Yet, we must be mindful of the limits of free speech if truth is our ultimate goal. As a Catholic university for independent thinkers, the University of Dallas must maintain its identity, in part, by rejecting free speech absolutism. 

The term, “Cancel Culture” is being thrown around, particularly on the political right, to describe censorship of prominent conservatives and commonly accepted right-wing ideas. It can take the form of UCLA uninviting Ben Shapiro to speak or Amazon refusing to sell Ryan Anderson’s book “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement.” 

While resisting “Cancel Culture,” one can overplay his hand and idolize free speech. 

“Free Speech absolutism” is the god of absolute unfettered speech. A free speech absolutist will say: “While I disagree with what you’re saying, I’ll fight for your right to say it.” When people embrace the right to lie over the absoluteness of truth, the boundaries of free speech extend beyond their proper place.

For the sake of truth, free speech should be limited according to the needs of a particular environment. For example, there are tangible limits to speech in the American public square. Libel, slander and perjury are types of false testimony intended to either harm someone’s image or to miscarry justice in the law. 

Likewise, incitement occurs when one provides false counsel to cause harm. Shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater is only wrong when, in fact, there is not a fire in the crowded theater. 

As a society, we limit speech on the basis of an objective bias. The basis for censorship ought to be truth.

The United States does not regulate religious, political or philosophical speech because these forms of speech are not objectively factual. As a private institution with a proclaimed identity and mission, UD ought to have a broader approach to speech. This relies on our identity as a Catholic university for independent thinkers. 

The first component of the university’s identity is that we are Catholic (by this, I do not presume that every student, faculty or staff member is or ought to be Catholic). While the Catholic Church’s rites are diverse, we are all united by the Pope in Rome and by our acceptance of his magisterial authority. 

Certain ideas are intolerable to promote at a Catholic institution, such as Marxism, heterodoxy, protestantism and pro-abortion and anti-Catholic views. This is not to say that those individuals of other faiths are unwelcome, but we can no sooner allow them to erect a church on campus as to promote anti-Catholic theology. These are intolerable not only because they are false, but also antithetical to the Church and her holy teaching. 

Consider next that UD is a Catholic university. Our university mission alters what kind of speech we should allow. The mission says, in part, that “the University is committed to the recovery and renewal of the Western heritage of liberal education.” 

Our academic bias is to the old Christian model of liberal education. The university has four short years to educate students in both the Core and their individual fields of study. To do so, we have to provide the best, most influential and representative writers in Literary Traditions, philosophers in Philosophy and the Ethical Life and political thinkers in Principles of American Politics. The university intentionally discriminates against the rest. 

Finally, UD is the Catholic university for independent thinkers. The mission says that “the University seeks to educate its students so they may develop the intellectual and moral virtues” and “prepare themselves for life.” We undergraduates attend UD not to promote personal opinions, but to learn and form our worldviews on the basis of the Core and our specific fields of study. 

Such focus demonstrates that we are not here to think freely, but to be educated. We are taught to the end that we might think independently upon leaving. UD is not a forum for us to express ourselves, but a scholarly institution where those older and wiser teach us. We are not merely taught how to think. Rather, informed by truth, we come to know what to think.

Falsehoods do not need to be permitted to protect the truth, and speech can only be as free as it is true. UD’s first duty is not to protect freedom of speech but to pursue truth. We ought to leave open to discussion those questions not settled. We ought not fear the exclusivity of truth but move on to other matters up for dispute and reject any falsehood that would prevent it.

St. Paul’s exhortation on the Thessolonians encapsulates my argument: “But prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). 

2 COMMENTS

  1. How on earth can one develop independent thinking skills without utilizing independent thought? Independent thought is built through engagement, constantly trained as if a muscle. If we students wanted a safe space to learn Dogma we should have stayed in Sunday school, because this is a university. We are adults, and we are standing on a door way to the rest of the world, to the rest of our lives. Independent thought is the greatest weapon we can have once we leave these halls, but we can’t use it if we never learn what it is to engage with others.

  2. Would we have the Summa if St. Thomas hadn’t been allowed to entertain opinions that were contrary to the truth? Also, didn’t the medieval university teach students to debate on topics with their teachers, rather than passively receiving information, which would have necessitated familiarity with what is against Church teaching? Like studying fallacies in a logic class?

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