Continued assaults on the right of free speech, especially in academic institutions, should concern every person of good will, especially as November elections approach.
Free speech “zones,” fear of reprisal at the institutional or professional level, and environments promoting an overall academic culture of fear all have ominous overtones that are culturally and politically expansive. Those who come to study in the United States from abroad are often seeking this very right because it has been compromised or lost in their country of origin.
In the preamble of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights we read that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”
The Declaration rightly recognized the profound connection between free speech and the fundamental aspirations of the human spirit: namely, truth and freedom. It is remarkable that in the United States of America this basic right has lately been called into question.
President Donald Trump is a champion of free speech. He, along with so many believers across America, is justifiably outraged when he sees students or guest speakers on college campuses get shouted down, or even greeted with violence, when they speak up for faith, pro-life, or other conservative values. These are nothing other than direct attacks on our First Amendment rights.
As part of his duty, therefore, to defend the Constitution of the United States, and as yet another sign that he shares and defends our values, President Trump took executive action by signing, in March of 2019, a historic executive order that promotes and protects free speech on college campuses. The purpose of the order is “to enhance the quality of post-secondary education by making it more affordable, more transparent, and more accountable.” The order emphasizes:
In particular, my Administration seeks to promote free and open debate on college and university campuses. Free inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation’s democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity. We must encourage institutions to appropriately account for this bedrock principle in their administration of student life and to avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives, thereby potentially impeding beneficial research and undermining learning.
In calling for this accountability, the Trump administration recognized the link between free inquiry, learning, discovery, and prosperity, all of which effectively safeguard the perennial ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These ideals, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, separate us from tyranny.
Tyranny is not a static reality and, when left unchecked, grows and consumes societies to the detriment not only of its material prosperity, but the spiritual as well. As such, the Catholic Church has great interest in defending the right of free speech, asserting both a “duty and innate right, independent of any human power whatsoever, to preach the gospel to all peoples.” (Can. 747)
Further, the affirmation that “it belongs to the Church always and everywhere to announce moral principles, even about the social order, and to render judgment concerning any human affairs insofar as the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls requires it,” (ibid.) compels laity and clergy alike to promote the right to free speech where it has been compromised.
In his speech at the close of the Republican National Convention, the president reiterated his commitment to ensuring the First Amendment still applies in our nation, referring to leftist attempts to “establish speech codes to muzzle dissent,” and to the dangerous spread of the “cancel culture.”
The president’s commitment to free speech is a welcome affirmation of these fundamental human rights that our nation was founded to defend and that the Church seeks to nourish and promote.
Fr. Frank Pavone is National Director of Priests for Life