Anti-Catholic Free Speech


It’s interesting to be known as “the Catholic guy” at a public university in a predominantly Baptist town. I don’t think I fully understood the implications, however, until quite recently.
It was February, and I was in Little Rock for the Southeastern Conference’s women’s basketball tournament. While I was out of town, some undergraduate student wrote a bitter and bigoted piece about the Catholic Church in our campus paper. My inbox was flooded with people telling me about it, sending links to blogs that analyzed it, or asking me to write something about it.
Before going further, let me note that there is a vibrant Catholic community at Ole Miss. The dean of the graduate school, the dean of students, the associate deans from engineering and law, the most recently retired provost and dean of liberal arts, the current baseball coach, and the last two football head coaches (though not the current one) are all Catholics. In fact, I once read that about one third of the faculty here self-identify as Catholic. Still, presumably because of the kind of work that I have done, people expected me to be the one to respond to the article in question.
I did not reply while I was in Little Rock, but as soon as I pulled back into town that Saturday night — while I was still in the parking lot — one of the university’s highest-ranking administrators stopped me to apologize (and to find out what I planned to do). I really didn’t have any plans.
On Sunday morning, my priest stopped me after Mass. He knew the author of the piece; it was an Ole Miss student who also worked as a bartender downtown. Father Joe complimented the kid’s non-alcoholic drinks, but he also said that the piece was poorly written and illogical. Father Joe had written a reply to it on a blog, but mainly he wanted to let me know about an entry he had seen on that same blog. He told me it said: “Where is Ron Rychlak when you need him?” (I think the actual language was a bit different.) Father was as amused, as I was.
I never responded to that article. First of all, there are bigots and uninformed people in every town; there is no reason to think that Oxford, Mississippi, is any different. Second, the article had been deconstructed and rebutted before I even had a chance to look at it; there was little that I could add. Most importantly, however, I’m a professor at this kid’s school. That relationship imposes certain obligations on me.
At the time that this all took place, I was teaching my constitutional law class about the First Amendment’s right to free speech. A fundamental principle in that area of law is that the proper response to bad speech is more speech, not suppression of speech. Thus it was quite appropriate for others to respond to the article in question. I’m glad they did. As a professor at the author’s school, however, I had to be aware of the adverse consequences that might come from any reply that I made.
A professor taking an overly heavy hand against a student who dares to venture an opinion can crush that student’s spirit and discourage others from speaking up on any issue. If this were a matter of public debate on which some important decision would be made, I might have had an obligation to speak up. In this case, however, nothing was riding on the article. Moreover, anything written by me would potentially be more than a response; it might seem like a professor using his authority to stifle debate.
Some might think it would be good to stifle this debate. Perhaps, but be careful what you wish for. If professors can stifle students, Christian students will be the first to be silenced. If you think that bigoted professors already silence Christian students, you’re correct, but two wrongs don’t make a right. Moreover, one of the reasons that Catholics have prospered in this nation is because of constitutional rights related to speech, association, and religion. We should be particularly aware and protective of these rights.
I’m honored to be thought of as a “Catholic guy” at Ole Miss. The university has been very good to me and supportive of my efforts. I’ve been able to do a lot of work for the benefit of the Church. And an important skill that has helped me along the way is the ability to allow others not to hear my opinion on every little matter.

By

Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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