Error Enjoys All the Rights

The firing of Dr. Kenneth Howell

Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim professor with ties to terrorist activity whose visa was revoked in 2004, returned to American campuses this spring after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lifted his travel ban. Liberal intellectuals cheered Clinton’s decision, calling it an important victory for “academic freedom” and “tolerance.” Boston College’s Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, declared that “every academic should welcome his presence here.”

Such is the grimly buffoonish character of American academia that radical Muslims today enjoy greater freedom on campuses than do orthodox Catholics. A controversy in July, now almost routine in American public life under aggressive secularism, illustrated this once again: Kenneth Howell, a Catholic who taught religion courses at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was fired from his position for simply defending on the basis of reason the Church’s teaching that homosexual behavior is contrary to the natural moral law.

The controversy began with an exam-related e-mail Howell had sent to students in his Introduction to Catholicism course. In the e-mail preparing students for a test, Howell explained the Church’s teaching on the morality of homosexual acts and contrasted it with regnant theories of utilitarianism.

“Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” read a paragraph in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act.”

To explain philosophically what is self-evidently true—that homosexual acts are anatomically incorrect and violate the obvious natural design of sexuality—is enough to generate a “hate speech” complaint. And in Howell’s case, the complaint came not even from a student in the class but from a “friend” of a student in the class. Writing to Robert McKim (head of UI’s religion department) in May, the “friend” said that his offended friend “sent me the following e mail, which I believe you will agree is downright absurd once you read it.”

McKim duly did, and with Orwellian haste, UI fired Howell shortly thereafter. According to the local press, Ann Mester, associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, wrote in an internal e-mail to nervous colleagues: “the e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us.”

“Inclusivity,” you see, doesn’t mean including believing Catholics in the discussion, just other important voices like those of Tariq Ramadan and Bill Ayers. On American campuses, like in Orwell’s Animal Farm, “some pigs are more equal than others.” Had Howell taught sympathetic courses about militant Islam at UI instead of introductory Catholic ones, he would still be employed. Had Howell extolled depraved acts rather than condemned them, he would be on the path to tenure.

The guardians of western civilization once said error has no rights. Today, its gatekeepers decree that error enjoys all of them. Western universities founded to teach the truth honor professors who deny it and fire professors who speak it.

The proud mantra of “academic freedom” that echoes down administrative corridors means in reality the opposite: under it, protections are extended not to professors who liberate minds through sound philosophy but to relativists and skeptics who imprison minds in fashionable propaganda. The more obviously true the thought from the mind of a professor, the more likely officials at western universities are to police it.

“I am willing to fight to the death for your right to express your belief freely,” said Voltaire. These days his intellectual progeny fight to prevent it. They rose to power through praise of robust free speech on campus; they stay in power by suppressing it.

Of course, if anti-American radicals like Ward Churchill (the University of Colorado professor who said America deserved to be attacked on 9/11) are under discussion, they take the line that exposing students to odious and unpopular ideas is of benefit to them. After all, we wouldn’t want daring young minds to be sheltered. But if a Kenneth Howell is speaking to students, Enlightenment-style liberals scurry to cup their ears, lest they hear a position contrary to approved propaganda.

We stand at the sad terminus of a relativistic and skeptical western culture in which error controls all rights. Such a culture inevitably resorts to “hate speech” laws, repressive speech codes, boycotts, and firings, for an ideology which contains no truth with which to move minds is left with raw force to move wills.


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