SEE ADDTIONAL UPDATE HERE: Complaints of ‘disrespectful’ Speaker Used to Cancel Abortion Debate Appear Unfounded
The recent petition to ban Elder Holland from speaking at Southern Utah University’s Commencement ceremony has once again sparked a debate over cancel culture throughout the Wasatch front. This attempt to cancel Elder Holland perhaps carries an extra dose of retribution. Elder Holland had long been viewed by liberal Latter-day Saints as a political ally, or a “closet liberal,” as a friend once told me. That is, until his (un)surprising affirmation of the traditional family during the BYU 2021 Faculty Speech. His loving but firm confirmation of foundational Church doctrine was unfortunately seen by this group as nothing other than a betrayal.
In today’s political climate, is it surprising that so many would seek to silence a loving elderly gentleman simply because they disagree with his views? No. At least, not for “other people.” Members of the BYU Community pride themselves in thinking that we would never do such a thing. Cancel culture is for universities like SUU and UVU.
An outside viewer could certainly get that picture, given that BYU and its affiliates have recently been the targets of cancel culture. First, it was Sister Wendy Nelson (wife of BYU Board of Trustee’s President) getting protested at UVU, then the Duke volleyball scandal, and now Elder Holland (former BYU President and current member of the Board of Trustees). In all these instances, BYU stood firm. Other schools may have given in to this irrational hysteria, but not us.
But as so often happens, the victim is also a perpetrator.
As a BYU Law student, I belong to the Federalist Society, a school club devoted to “providing a forum for legal experts of opposing views to interact with…students [and] academics…[in] legal debate.” Rather than avoiding hot-topic issues, we seek to engage with them through timely, rational debate. Speakers that hold the “other” viewpoint are not enemies, rather opponents. No one wishes any party ill will, but that they will all perform their best. And when the buzzer signals the end of another intellectual match, the reward is understanding—understanding of the weaknesses and strengths of one’s own position, as well as the “other.” Yes, this increased understanding will be used to hone one’s arguments, shore up the defenses, and prepare for battle another day, but there is another subtle by-product, even more important than increased knowledge: respect. Respect when the opponent succeeds because their views were valid, and respect when the opponent fails because their effort was worthy. A respect, I might add, that is possible because of engaging with those you disagree, rather than avoiding them.
Unfortunately, the BYU Law Administration thinks otherwise. During Fall semester, the Federalist Society planned to host an event to discuss the merits of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision and the legal implications of Roe v. Wade’s reversal. We invited two professors, one liberal (BYU Law) and one conservative (Nebraska Law), to share their views on this issue. These long-time professors and friends would challenge our views, educate our minds, and persuade us to see the law through their eyes. Discussions like this are one of the few holdovers from the forgotten era of a truly liberal education.
And then I was texted that word:
I’d been afraid of this. Yes, even at BYU. You see, the Federalist Society has a rival club, the American Constitutional Society (ACS), that opposes conservative and libertarian thought. I had met with their president before planning the event to see if we could work together. Both sides of the issue would be well represented, perhaps we could pool our resources together to persuade students of all political persuasions to attend the event. Unfortunately, members of the club were “not interested in hearing [our] side of the issue.”
No matter. I had another purpose in meeting together. I wanted to at least get his assurance that they would not try to cancel us. It seemed like an easy sell. We both agreed to respect one another’s events “because here at BYU, we honor and respect free speech”….sometimes.
Two days later, I sat in the Dean of Students’ office. Despite our agreement, a student from ACS had complained. The Dean explained that our event was just too controversial. Why? Because last year when the Nebraska professor spoke at the BYU Federalist Society, some students got “offended.” Meanwhile, at that very moment, “The Janes” was being presented by ACS just a few rooms from the Dean’s office. The Janes is a movie documenting how several women formed an illegal underground abortion network during the pre-Roe era. Before being arrested, they were able to perform an estimated 11,000 abortions: true American heroes.
On the other hand, our proposed speaker was so unacceptable that his very presence could not be tolerated. The speech this 71-year-old law professor gave the previous year was titled, “True Diversity Means Inclusion, Not Exclusion.” During that Federalist Society debate, he explained that true diversity comes from our beliefs, backgrounds, and viewpoints. Therefore, we should never silence someone, whether liberal or conservative (or in-between). Equally dangerous as silencing, is compelled speech, which is simply enslavement of the tongue. One example he gave was forcing someone to use your gender pronouns when they have elected not to. He concluded his presentation by calling on BYU to be a place where honest and tough conversations can happen.
Fanciful wishes? Not to him. Following the event this professor expressed to me that he loves coming to BYU because he always feels welcome to share his true thoughts. He had been to BYU many, many times in the past. He was no random professor from the street. Though not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when the faculty representative for the J. Reuben Clark Law Society at his law school died, he volunteered to keep the club going. Why would a non-member, non-BYU graduate represent our club at his school? Because he viewed the BYU and Latter-day Saint community as his friends.
And so there I sat in the Dean’s office—two “friends” of this old professor. The Dean relayed the anonymous complaint to me. Not surprisingly, this student’s recollection of the speech was very twisted and overblown. But even if it was true, should it matter? Short of vulgarity or opposition to Church doctrine, what valid reason could there possibly be to silence a man for respectfully presenting his views?
Evan Gertsmann, Professor of Political Science at Loyola Marymount University, wrote that cancel culture “elevates performative outrage over dialogue, factual inquiry, or respect for values such as free speech or fair process. It rejects the value of ideological diversity.” This student’s “offense” was not the result of being targeted or shamed, rather it was disagreement (and disagreement with views held by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to boot). But for cancel culture, disagreement is enough; cancel culture does not tolerate difference of opinions.
And so he was canceled. To make matters worse, I was left with the job of informing this professor that he needed to cancel both his flight and hotel room. To my knowledge, the BYU Law Administration never reached out to him. They never offered an explanation. They never offered an apology. As I sat down to notify this professor that he wasn’t allowed to speak at our school, my anger turned to shame. How was I supposed to explain this? Fortunately, he responded that I “shouldn’t worry.” He “knew exactly what had happened” and “wasn’t surprised.” While his words comforted me, they also opened my eyes to the dismal reality of contemporary higher education.
How long is this ban, one might wonder? It is unclear. I was told that it would last at least until there were no longer students who felt unsafe with this professor in the building; in other words, until these students graduate (minimum 2 years). Given this professor’s age, it’s very possible that he won’t be teaching anymore. But that’s not what matters. The real question is, would he even want to come back if he could?
In complete sincerity, I think the answer is yes. This man embodies BYU’s aspirations of resilience and community, rather than fragility and division. He isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes. And unlike the “cancellers,” he is willing to forgive. What higher education needs is more people like him, not less.
It is difficult in today’s world to take the road less traveled. Restricting conservative speech is popular in higher education. Giving in to the wishes of the frequently “offended” students seems to keep the peace—and it just might for a time—but it comes at a high price. Whatever platform BYU might have had to defend Elder Holland’s invitation to SUU has been severely undermined. How can BYU expect SUU not to cancel Elder Holland for his views on human sexuality while we banish professors like the one from Nebraska for sharing his identical beliefs?
The rest of academia may see no problem with this hypocrisy, but that is no excuse for us. Indeed, Elder Clark Gilbert spoke true in his recent article when he encouraged BYU faculty to “Dare to be different.”
I have full confidence in the free marketplace of ideas. Truth and reason will win out. Students will gravitate toward that which is good, wholesome, and right. I also have confidence that as we treat others with respect, even when we disagree (especially when we disagree), then we will receive the same in return. BYU can, and should, lead the effort to restore respect and dignity to higher education.
But before we tackle that mote, we’ve got a beam to take care of.
Guest Contributor at The Cougar Chronicle
The opinions expressed are those of the author
The Cougar Chronicle is an independent student-run newspaper and is not affiliated with Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
If I am understanding the author correctly, the debate was not “Abortion-Good or Bad?” The debate was about the legal implications of the Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court. Valid and cogent arguments could be made on both sides of this issue by someone who supported unrestricted abortion or by someone who totally opposed abortion in every case. If the whining student in the ACS is a law student (as is likely), I would not want to be represented by him/her/them/it in a legal matter. The inability to carefully listen to and critically examine opposing arguments are vital legal skills. Skills which are obviously not possessed by this ACS snowflake
I am appalled to learn about this. There is no excuse for something like this to occur at BYU, particularly at the law school. No law school should allow view-point discrimination of this nature. This kind of cowardice by any law school administrator deserves a strong rebuke. If the dean lacks the fortitude to defend this kind of debate he should be removed.
This statement stuck out to me. Hmmm…”Short of vulgarity or opposition to Church doctrine, what valid reason could there possibly be to silence a man for respectfully presenting his views?”
Are you for free speech or not? I am confused because of the above statement. What does the law determine as free speech? Maybe we already have cancel culture within our church culture?
Be careful that you wouldn’t do the same thing if the tables were turned on you.