If you can’t beat them, gag them

An odd, silly and dangerous movement has now taken a poisonous hold in the public square. The result is that free speech, hand in hand with freedom of religion, is now an endangered species.

Back in the 1980s the British National Union of Students initiated its No Platform policy. They adopted the very ‘liberal’ line of banning union affiliates from debating with members of what they called ‘extremist’ groups. No one paid that much notice. It was all a matter of students being students and what they were doing did not have that much baring on mainstream society. Has something changed? Yes it has, with a vengeance.

In a speech given at King’s College London as part of  the new and very healthy ‘Down With Campus Censorship!’ campaign, Tom Slater, assistant editor at Spiked.com, sees in this the greatest threat of all to the very idea of the university.

In the United Kingdom the University of Derby’s student union, Tom Slater tells us,“has attempted to ban the entirety of UKIP on the grounds that the burble of the notoriously gaffe-prone party poses a threat to student safety.”What kind of democratic mentality wants to gag its opponents rather than debate the truth with them?The same kind of mentality as that of the University of Cardiff’s student union which keeps trying to pass a motion that would effectively outlaw ‘pro-life’ societies and demonstrations on campus.

Anna Furedi is a leading UK opponent of all those who maintain that life begins at conception and of those who maintain that it deserves protection, as all human life does, from that moment. She found herself turned on recently by her own supporters, becoming a high-profile target of the No Platform brigade.

She arrived at Cambridge University’s Trinity College to take part in a discussion on abortion. For the first time in her life she encountered a political protest asking people not to attend a debate. For her it was a sad sign of the times. The debate was organised by Cambridge Students for Life, who oppose abortion, and Cambridge Medicine Society. The motion was: ‘Genetics and disability should not be used as grounds for abortion.’

It was all too much for the Cambridge University Student Union Women’s Campaign which was out in force to persuade people not to attend the debate. Anna tried to reason with them that their time would be better spent IN the hall, arguing for women’s reproductive choice. They were having none of it. Their reasons:

‘The motion is biased’

Yes, she responded, that’s because it’s a debate and one side supports the motion and the other opposes it, and so a neutral motion wouldn’t work very well. The irony was lost on them. They then tried with:

‘The speakers are biased because they’ve been selected by the anti-abortion side. They will have deliberately asked weaker people to oppose it.’

“Ouch. That hurt”, commented Anna, one of the UK’s most formidable proponents of abortion as a woman’s right.

They finally told her that No Platform polices exist so that people don’t hear their opponents’ arguments. She countered this by saying it might suggest that they want to silence their opposition because they can’t match their arguments? “In other words, you don’t want to let them speak out because you’re afraid you can’t convince people that they are wrong.”

‘Well, we are afraid of that.’ They admitted.

Understandably that left Anna speechless.

“That students at one of Britain’s leading universities”, she reflected, “should sink to such intellectual depths is nothing short of tragic. Had the protesters attended the debate they would have seen an intelligent discussion between people with different views about morals and principles, the nature of human life and its value. The debate was fair, the speakers were considered, and the questions and points from the audience deserved to be answered. This was a sensible and respectful discussion. I listened to my opposition, and I learned. I came away with none of my pro-choice convictions diluted – just a better sense of how to present what I believe in a way that may be more convincing.

“Abortion is a political issue that causes us to consider metaphysics and moral values, definitions of life, the limits of personal autonomy, and the limits on women’s equality. It is absurd to claim that debate is, by its nature, ‘violent’. Pitting your arguments against someone who disagrees with you is one of the best ways to learn to be more clear, concise and precise. Frankly, taking on able and informed opponents of my views was a challenge, but my opponents in the debate were far less hostile than the row of protesters who purported to agree with me about women’s rights but whose signs told me explicitly to ‘Fuck off’.

“You don’t have to be a Cambridge intellectual to understand why debate and discussion should be encouraged. When you try to silence someone, you simply tell the world that you fear what they might say.”

We might ask ourselves if this is what is really happening here? Have the arguments of the liberal left run into the ground, leaving nothing but froth on the surface? Have they become so aware of the shallowness of the metaphysical and moral value of their view of mankind that they can now only see one option – gag the voices of their opponents?

Tom Slater believes that of all the supposedly dangerous ideas running rampant on university campuses at the moment, the idea that restricting what students can say, read or listen to is in any way a positive step poses the greatest threat of all to the very idea of the university. As far as he is concerned the truth is that when student unions ban a speaker they are not challenging dodgy ideas, they are not helping to push for a more progressive society – they are merely saying that the students are too fragile and stupid to listen to sense.

Linked to the challenge to free speech is the challenge to freedom of religion. Where this challenge is appearing increasingly aggressive is within the school system – right across the Christian world. Three recent headlines tell part of the story:

“Teachers cannot opt out of teaching gay ‘marriage’ in school sex-education classes” – that is in Scotland. “No parental opt-out from any course, including sex-education. Teachers cannot opt out of teaching gay ‘marriage’ in school” – that is in Manitoba, Canada. While in Toronto the school board also tells parents they can’t opt kids out of pro-homosexual classes.

In Wakefield Rhode Island in the US, controversy has erupted at a Roman Catholic school after students and parents reacted with outrage to Church teaching on sexuality as presented at a school assembly. This follows the same pattern as events at a school in Charlotte, North Carolina some weeks earlier.

Meanwhile in Paris a French government minister accused those who assert the teaching of the Catholic Church of trying to wage an ideological war from another era. In all cases the story seems to be the same. Read more about these stories here.

Where is it all going to end? Well, one place it might end is with a renewal of the determination of all Christians stand by the teaching which marks them out as such and to teach it to others, whether opportunely or inopportunely.

As Anna Furedi said, “When you try to silence someone, you simply tell the world that you fear what they might say.” Surely that is one of the most despicable fears of all? Alliance Vita, Father Francis “Rocky” Hoffman, Sister Mary Tracy in Seattle and Sister Jane Dominic Laurel in North Carolina are an example to us all.

“An ideological war from another era” – ‘sounds like Game of Thrones



In the aftermath of Irish Television’s failed attempt to do a hatchet job on the Pure in Heart movement – which organises speakers to go into Catholic schools giving presentations of Catholic Church teaching on the morality of sexual behaviours – further afield the same onslaught against orthodox Catholic teaching is taking place.

In Wakefield Rhode Island in the US, controversy has erupted at a Roman Catholic school after students and parents reacted with outrage to Church teaching on sexuality as presented at a school assembly. This follows the same pattern as events at a school in Charlotte, North Carolina some weeks earlier.

Meanwhile in Paris a French government minister accuses those who assert the teaching of the Catholic Church of trying to wage an ideological war from another era. In all cases the story seems to be the same. As with Irish Television’s presentation, orthodox teachers are misquoted and Catholic teaching is represented in grotesque forms, all the better, it seems to facilitate its consignment to the rubbish dump of history.

In Rhode Island Father Francis “Rocky” Hoffman spoke to students at The Prout School and in the course of his talk, he apparently made comments critical of homosexuality and divorce that some students found offensive. There has been uproar and some Catholic observers feel let down by the Diocese of Providence’s spokesman on the issue who has seemed to agree with Hoffman’s critics. They see the controversy as part of a growing tendency to rage against Catholics for simply professing Church teaching on marriage and homosexuality.

There is as yet no response from Bishop Thomas Tobin, a bishop known for his strong defence of Church teaching on life and family, to clarify the diocese’s position.

Administrators at Prout, however, issued written and verbal apologies to parents and students alike after a number of parents expressed anger about the content of Fr. Hoffman’s presentation, and that they weren’t notified in advance. Some are openly calling for Principal David Carradini’s resignation over the matter. A transcript of what Fr. Hoffman actually said in the discussions with the students is no yet available, but as one source, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, commented, it could hardly be stronger than what Sacred Scripture itself says.

“What did Fr. Hoffman say that was so horrible? Could he have been harsher than the Bible?” the priest asked, quoting Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.”

“Could his talk have been more challenging than Matthew 5:32: ‘But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’?”

In a separate post, Zuhlsdorf lamented, “If you speak in public now with any clarity about the Church’s teachings on sexuality, marriage, etc., or avert to conclusions which rational people reach about the same derived from the Natural Law, you will be met with fury.”

The incident at Prout is reminiscent of the recent furor at Charlotte Catholic High School in North Carolina, where comments made by Sister Jane Dominic Laurel that were critical of divorce and homosexuality provoked anger among students and parents, leading to a contentious meeting between diocesan and school officials and parents that attracted roughly 1,000 people. That controversy became so heated that Sr. Laurel, a professor at Aquinas College, has taken a sabbatical from her teaching and speaking duties.

The similarity between the two stories has led some Catholic bloggers to accuse diocesan and school officials in both locations of throwing those who dare to promote unpopular Church doctrines “under the bus.”

“Catholic education’s easy bargain of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ concerning dissent against Church teachings and morality has coalesced into ‘outrage’ from parents and students when high schools try to teach and enforce Church teachings,” wrote Rebecca Hamilton of the Public Catholic blog. “Bishops, when faced with these angry mobs have turned to the time-honored bureaucratic practice of court-martial-the-private/fire-the-secretary/shoot-the-messenger. Sister Mary Tracy resigned in Seattle. Sister Jane Dominic Laurel took a sabbatical in North Carolina. Father Rocky Hoffman hasn’t been cashiered the way the nuns were, but he has been properly apologized for to the mob.”

“The response to angry mobs demanding that Catholic schools not teach Catholic teaching has been to wave the white flag and toss the hapless offender who committed the crime of doing what the Church says we should all do under the bus,” Hamilton wrote. “If every Catholic who believes what the Church teaches gets thrown under the bus for being politically incorrect enough to say so in public, we’re going to need a lot bigger bus.”

Meanwhile a school in Paris is to be investigated after complaints from parents and teachers of a similar nature.

Benoit Hamon, the education minister, has ordered an inspection of the Gerson school in the 16th arrondissement, saying there is evidence that pupils are being subjected to “an ideological war from another era”.

It is alleged that members of a group called Alliance Vita or “Life Alliance told sixth formers that women who used birth control were “semi-murderers” and abortion was “tantamount to murder”, according to a parent quoted in Le Parisien newspaper.

Alliance Vita said its members had been invited by the school to address pupils about topics including in-vitro fertilisation and surrogacy. “Some want the subject of abortion to remain taboo but abortion is a genuine issue in society that should be discussed with young people,” the group said in a statement.

While allegations fly around about what was said or not said – including an allegation that the school is being taken over by Opus Dei, a prelature of the Catholic Church, a statement from the school board of management said the Alliance Vita had merely “taken part in extra-curricular sessions,” adding that it had received no complaints from teachers or pupils.

Philippe Person, the headmaster, said: “It’s possible that two members of the school faculty belong to Opus Dei out of 150 teachers and staff”.

That does not sound too much like a take-over.