U Chicago Divinity School Students call for curtailing free speech

On February 6, University of Chicago professor Rachel Fulton Brown (described as “Associate Professor of Medieval History, Fundamentals, and the College at the University of Chicago, and Associate Faculty in the Divinity School”) published a piece about Milo Yiannpoulos on “Sightings,” a column at the University’s Divinity School website. Called “Why Milo scares students, faculty even more,” the column was a defense of Milo’s right to speak, claiming that he could inspire conversation, that his motivations for so doing were fundamentally religious in origin, and that protests against him prove that students are embracing secularism as a flawed substitute for religion (Fulton Brown is clearly a believer, but at least one who thinks one’s faith should be be continually questioned). Fulton Brown begins by describing the riots that Milo’s appearance created at Berkeley, and then lays out her thesis:

The tradition of higher education in America is deeply indebted to Christian ideals. In his talk at Minnesota State University shortly before Christmas, Milo cited a commitment to education as one of the most important things Christianity gets right. “The first law in America to require general education,” he noted, “was called ‘The Old Deluder Satan Act’ to teach children to read the Bible in 1647. 122 of the first 123 colleges in America were Christian universities. Think about Harvard University, one of the epicenters of liberalism today. This is the founding statement of Harvard: ‘Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3.’”

. . . As a consequence of this self-secularization, religion became an object of academic study considered only from the outside, not tested intellectually or experientially from within. Universities, particularly public universities, became places for the purportedly neutral exchange of ideas, not for conversion to any clearly articulated and tested faith. Religion was a matter for the heart; education a matter for the head.

. . . This, I would argue, is why American college students and faculty find Milo’s talks so threatening. The issues that Milo talks about are usually considered political, but in fact have to do with people’s deepest convictions: the proper relations between women and men, the definition of community, the role of beauty, access to truth. Milo professes himself a Catholic and wears a pair of gold crosses around his neck. He speaks about the importance of Christianity for the values of Western civilization. As he put it in one interview: “[Western civilization] has created a religion in which love and self-sacrifice and giving are the highest possible virtues… That’s a good thing… But when you remove discipline and sacrifice from religion you get a cult.”

None of these issues, most especially the civilizational roots of culture and virtue in religious faith, are typically addressed in modern college education in America. Rather, they are, for the most part, purposefully avoided.

. . . Not to address these issues openly does not allow students to keep an open mind. Their minds are already open—and being filled with what they are given in place of religion: multiculturalism; race, class, gender; the purportedly secular ideals of socialism and Marxism. Particularly for those students, and faculty, who have little to no religious education outside of school, these ideals have become their faith.

. . . Thanks to his near charismatic appeal as a speaker, at least for those who attend his talks rather than stand outside protesting, he holds out the possibility of conversion, of changing hearts and minds.

It is much easier to call Milo names than to accept the challenge he presents.

Well, this is distressing on several grounds, most notably Fulton Brown’s criticism that secularism is an inadequate substitute for religious ideals. I question whether religious colleges encourage dissent and open speech about faith, homosexuality, and so on.  I’d also argue that she oversells Milo’s appeal to reason, since he’s most often a provocateur, and sometimes I’m not sure he even means what he says. But I would still argue that some of his points, like the need for affirmative action, the issue of equity versus gender feminism, and so on, could call for a conversation, even if he doesn’t engage in one himself. Students are all to ready to demonize people rather than argue with them,  and at the last someone like Milo, if you listen to him, could help you hone your ideas.  I remain firm in my view that if Milo is invited to speak by a college group, it is censorship to disinvite him, particularly at a public university.

But a large group of Divinity School students went further, calling Fulton Brown’s article (and the Divinity School website) an enabler of white supremacy (there they go again!), saying that both Fulton Brown and the University have endangered people by publishing her piece, and implicitly calling for a ban on not just MiloSpeak, but FultonBrown speak. Read the letter in the student newspaper The Maroon, “Divinity School students call for more inclusive environment in light of Fulton Brown Controversy.”

What strikes me first is how absymally written and full of jargon their letter is. Someone needs to teach these students to write clearly! I’ll be brief because the letter, signed by several dozen students, is long and torturous (also tortuous). Here’s the first paragraph:

We, the undersigned students, write to address the recent controversy over Rachel Fulton Brown’s February 16 article in Sightings. We welcome commitments made by our administration and faculty to defend students genuinely threatened by harassment. However, we are compelled to contextualize Fulton Brown’s argument in our current political climate and wish to insist on further concrete actions from the Divinity School moving forward. These actions must cultivate an environment where all students are free not merely to express themselves but to exist as they are. No institution can thrive while significant portions of its population are at risk of being marked, targeted, threatened, or silenced.

They are “compelled to contextualize”!  But the argument boils down to this: what Fulton Brown said was racist and endangers marginalized students. They don’t even care whether she or the Div School agree with Milo, simply that she was allowed to express her opinion. Work your way through this thicket of prose (my emphases):

The publication of Fulton Brown’s article must be understood in its proper context: the escalation of bigotry and its violent effects, both locally and nationally. In fact, the central ideas Fulton Brown relates in her essay resonate with and act as means of harassment and recruitment common to the informal coalition of the self-identified alt-right. The correlations are straightforward. Her praise for Yiannopoulos amplifies his antipathy to trans students and has welcomed threatening anti-trans flyering on our campus by white nationalists. Her selective valorization of European history along with her critiques of the modern academy and so-called multicultural Marxism aligns with the platform of another recently active white nationalist organization. One need not establish whether or not Fulton Brown supports or collaborates with these groups, given the bare ideological similitude. What remains essential is the welcome offered to such individuals and organizations by national politics, University policy, and Sightings editorial standards. Unwittingly or otherwise, the publication of Fulton Brown’s article has provided a platform for the proliferation and mobilization of white supremacy, nativism, and patriarchal chauvinism.

That’s a common trope: hosting speakers somehow implies endorsement of their views.

Here’s the kicker (my emphases):

Various interested parties have made public displays defending this kind of speech by resorting to arguments for “freedom of expression.” We find this line of reasoning disingenuous. The University itself deploys the rhetoric even as it threatens student activism with disciplinary action. Sightings, for its part, deferred to freedom of expression only in response to public critiques, none of which took into account the bodies this article endangered or the inability for the response to uproot the cause of bigotry. In both instances, a highly circumscribed idea of free expression has been deployed selectively and after the fact to dismiss criticism out of hand, to defend discriminatory speech, and to leverage “shared ideals” against anyone who merely expresses opposition to established authorities. Under these conditions, “lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation” is impossible.

Freedom of expression cannot exist without freedom of subjects.

But what are these sweating students trying to say in the last sentence?  What is “freedom of subjects”? Simply that there are limits on free speech: one cannot use it against marginalized groups, and if you do so you’re abrogating their “freedom”:

Freedom of subjects requires a prior commitment to protecting the physical, emotional, and intellectual security of all people, especially those most concretely and historically threatened: people of color, LGBTQ+, trans, gender non-conforming people, immigrants, undocumented people, women, religious minorities, and people with disabilities. Failure to adhere to these commitments is reflected in the University’s recent Campus Climate Survey, in which students who identify as members of marginalized groups report higher incidence of physical violence, intimidation, discrimination, and harassment. In spite of these facts, University statements have not addressed freedom of subjects, instead focusing on free expression. This preference denigrates the creation of safe spaces and the use of trigger warnings, vital resources both for those who have experienced trauma and for the cultivation of effective educational environments.

In other words, “unsafe speech” is not free speech, and apparently both Fulton Brown and the University have promulgated such speech.  While of course people’s physical safety must be protected, there is no requirement to protect the “emotional and intellectual security” of anyone on a campus. Am I endangering that when I criticize Islam, adhered to by “religious minorities”? Do I violate the emotional security of women when I decry the Muslimophilia of white western feminists?

Amidst all the students’ turgid prose, one sees that they simply don’t want to permit speech unless it doesn’t “threaten” (i.e., offend) “all people”, but especially members of marginalized groups.

Seriously, I am dead against Trump’s immigration program, but it’s not a “threat” to call for enforcement of existing immigration laws. It should be a discussion. It’s not a threat to say that a Catholic who is gay is somewhat of a hypocrite. But these Div School students (and I find them the worst of the SJWs, as they are not only progressive, but also have a sense of god-given entitlement) are setting themselves up to be the arbiters of speech. Milo shouldn’t speak, and Ceiling Cat help us if someone defends him!

What is happening to my university?


  1. J.Baldwin
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    As a lover of irony, I always enjoy a good screed against freedom of expression.

  2. Posted May 17, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    “No institution can thrive while significant portions of its population are at risk of being marked, targeted, threatened, or silenced.”

    So they want to target, threaten, marginalise and silence Rachel Fulton Brown and anyone who thinks like her, in order that no-one in the university feels targeted, threatened, marginalised or silenced?

    Or perhaps Rachel Fulton Brown doesn’t count as a person?

    • DrBrydon
      Posted May 17, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      She is not a “significant portion” of the community. Individuals always lose out when people talk about community.

      • Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        It’s obvious that a minority of people is always the entity that needs to be protected, but it’s interesting that a minority needs to be protected from both majority and an individual.

  3. Posted May 17, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Someone needs to teach these students to write clearly!

    I don’t care what subject a student is studying, if they haven’t read Pinker’s The Sense of Style they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a keyboard.

  4. Kevin
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Since when has religion ever provided useful advice for the proper relations between women and men?

    When kids apply to colleges around America there should be a top leaflet pronouncing: If accepted you have permission to feel threatened, targeted or marginalized by anything you like and we accommodate any and all insecurities.

  5. Posted May 17, 2017 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    “Freedom of expression cannot exist without freedom of subjects.”

    This has all the hallmarks of a deepity.


    “Am I endangering that when I criticize Islam, adhered to by “religious minorities”? Do I violate the emotional security of women when I decry the Muslimophilia of white western feminists?”

    Maybe, but I would argue that even if you are so dangerous, the way you (at least) debate and discuss is such that the proposed alternative to the endangerment is far worse!

  6. barn owl
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Hmmm, as a young child, if I persisted in whining and sulking and pitching tantrums about some minor issue or perceived injustice, I usually got a spanking on my bare ideological similitude.

    I guess we don’t do that any longer.

  7. Steve S
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I’m curious how the university will respond. Please keep us updated.

    • Posted May 17, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      I doubt they will respond; it has nothing to do with the University as a whole.

  8. Randy schenck
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    So the Div School is full of snowflakes as well. How do you twist the logic around in your brain to make freedom of speech the enemy of any people, minority or otherwise. They say people have a right to exist as they are — meaning, we don’t want to hear it. Any hot topic or discussion of controversy is threatening and they feel silenced. Well open the mouth and speak!

  9. Posted May 17, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    So many unstated presumptions: 1. That mere speech causes people to believe bigoted things, which leads to violence against marginalized groups; 2. That the mere absence of scary speech will prevent bigoted beliefs and reduce violence; 3. That a highly regulated speech environment will enhance feelings of safety (as opposed to heightened social anxiety); 4. That feeling safe indicates actual safety, and feeling unsafe indicates actual danger; 5. That speech can be harmful, but censorship cannot ever be harmful if it comes from a social-justish motivation, nobody loses anything by being prevented from speaking; 6. That authoritative institutions (the ones constantly targeted by these protests) can be trusted to make the right calls on censorship; 7. Any allegation of oppressive speech is a priori correct, since debating it would be denying someone’s humanity or lived experience, hence any call for punishment is justified; 8. That protestors’ bully tactics cannot be coopted and employed by opposing interests….. I’m sure there are more.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted May 17, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink


  10. Anshul
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Can we also focus on how insane Alton Brown’s article is?

    • Posted May 17, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      You can focus on what you want, but commenters will write about what they want, not what you want them to. Her name, by the way, is Fulton Brown.

    • Jim Smith
      Posted May 18, 2017 at 1:45 am | Permalink

      Yes, but only in a world where freedom of expression exists. Otherwise you might have a master who says ‘no you can’t’ and then sends you to a health spa – stalin speak for gulag – to rethink your thought crimes.

  11. Tom
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    When young I had to choose between my beliefs and my religion, fortunately I chose my beliefs.
    They are likely to find that there are no safe spaces in this world and especially not in the arena of theology.

  12. DrBrydon
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Ugh. I went and re-read Brown’s piece, and then read the full letter. While I disagree, of course, with Brown’s premise that religion is missing from our educational lives, I don’t think it is accurate to say that her piece in any way supported Yiannpoulos. All she seems to be saying is a) that he’s touching a sore spot (obviously), and b) that the spot is sore because we aren’t adequately engaged with our culture’s supposed roots in religion.

    I find it hilarious that the letter seems to be entirely from students associated with the Div School. Given the history of religion and its interactions with the various groups the authors purport to support, I am amazed at their lack of self-awareness. Almost. The god-botherers are always blinkered about the negatives of religions as practised. Likewise, religions have always been in the forefront for suppressing speach. In this case the whole issue would go away if they abolished the Div School; the only good thing about it is the coffee shop.

    • somer
      Posted May 18, 2017 at 3:36 am | Permalink

      Yes what *the hell* is a divinity school doing in an a university anyway?? I don’t object to divinity schools per se – just not attached to a university.

  13. Posted May 17, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    “The tradition of higher education in America is deeply indebted to Christian ideals….”

    And that is where I stopped reading.

  14. Richard Sanderson
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Who would have guessed divinity schools would be just as opposed to free speech as social justice warriors and other regessives?

    Well, me actually. Year ago I said SJWs were acting like conservative Christians with regard to freedom of speech and expression.

    I love being right all the time.

    • Posted May 18, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      I suppose that, if left to their own devices, these divinity students would regress to practices like the Salem trial. Make America great again! (Europe was far greater, though.)

  15. Robert Bray
    Posted May 18, 2017 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    ‘ I question whether religious colleges encourage dissent and open speech about faith, homosexuality, and so on.’

    Indeed. Here are a few colleges within two-hours’ driving of Chicago where ‘open speech’ on such topics is discouraged if not forbidden: Wheaton College (remember the prof. who was forced out last year over her solidarity with Muslims); Olivet Nazarene (Bourbonnais), where ‘directed evolution’ is too liberal for the curriculum and led to a biology prof.’s being fired; Calvin and Hope Colleges (Michigan), whose Calvinist hangover credos condemn students to endless pain about whether they’re ‘saved’ or ‘damned.’

    Yes, that’s what we secularists need: a hot dose of that old time religion!

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