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The Notre Dame / Obama Controversy

I was happy to see that, for the most part, President Obama was received with open arms at Notre Dame’s Commencement over the weekend.  However, the controversy surrounding Obama’s visit has prompted a number of questions, not only about abortion rights but about the value of speech and the value of tolerance.


Speech is extremely essential to any society.  The right to free speech is one of the most celebrated and long-lasting rights in America.  The First Amendment explicitly prevents the government from abridging our right to free speech.  Additionally, society generally shuns private individuals (who are not obligated to observe the 1st Amendment) who try to censor speech.

The purpose behind this celebrated right is that we recognize that humans are fallible, and that the government is not all-knowing.  We recognize that no single person or group of persons can always be right about everything.  Rather, we recognize that new, unpopular ideas may turn out to be correct.  See Galileo.  Simply because an overwhelming majority of scientists believe that climate change is man-made does not mean that we should censor the dissenters.  A belief of a large crowd can often be wrong, and if we refuse to believe that we could ever be wrong, then we risk severe harm to human civilization.

Additionally, speech is often the vehicle by which people can come to optimal solutions.  Theoretically, when we debate important ideas, and we allow many people to speak, the best ideas will rise to the top as more and more individuals become convinced.  Furthermore, speech can help us strengthen our convictions in our own beliefs.  If we learn the best and most convincing arguments of people that believe differently from us, but we can rationally reject those ideas, then presumably we must reject them because we believe our views are even more convincing.  We could not realize our own views’ strength if we did not compare them to those of others.

Although Notre Dame is not the government, and does not need to obey the 1st Amendment, Notre Dame should have been shunned if it decided to keep Obama away purely because some students do not like his views on one issue.  Keeping him away would be asserting a kind of infallibility in both the school and in the students themselves.  It would encourage students to believe that they do not need to recognize that any beliefs other than their own, and it would encourage students to shelter themselves only with those that believe the same things they do.  It would prevent the students from learning other ideas that could either strengthen their own convictions or change their mind.

Obama was not at Notre Dame to convince Catholics that killing babies was a good idea.  Primarily, he was there to say congratulations for graduation.  As a secondary matter, he was there to respond to the protests at Notre Dame, and say that although perhaps pro-lifers and pro-choicers will never agree on the issue of abortion, they still have to live with one another and be able to speak with one another.  Moreover, if there is ever to be any serious abortion-related legislation, both sides are going to have to work with each other.  If you never speak to the other side, that will never happen, and neither side will ever be able to compromise.


Obama’s visit also raised questions about tolerance in society.  By tolerance I do not mean that Catholics should believe that Obama’s pro-choice view is just as correct as their pro-life view.  Rather, they need to accept him as a human being despite having conflicting views with their religion.  I am a recently-confirmed Catholic.  One of the most important lessons that I learned in the Bible is that Jesus did not only associate with saints, but sinners as well.  Jesus did not fight with other people; he turned the other cheek.  Jesus loved his neighbor, and he loved his enemies.

Catholics who responded to Obama’s visit by handing out hateful pictures of aborted fetuses and calling Obama a murderer did not act the way Jesus wanted people to act.  Instead, they shut their minds and showered Obama with hatred.  The Golden Rule that not only Christians but many persons claim to obey is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Would a Catholic who had an opportunity to speak at a school that was very pro-choice have wanted to be showered with this type of hatred?


Those that are pro-life and pro-choice need to put down their weapons.  First, abortion is not the most important policy issue going on right now in the world.  Both sides are going to have to work together to deal with a number of other important issues.  If they refuse to talk to one another because of abortion, that will be a shame, and more important things will not get done.  Secondly, humans are not infallible.  Assuming that one is all-knowing is extremely foolish and risks a “Galileo situation.”  Finally, Catholics who treat others with hate, even those who are their greatest enemies, are contradicting Jesus’s teachings.  It sounds tacky to say this, but: can’t we all just get along?

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Apparently, one of Barack Obama’s largest political liabilities is that 15% of voters think he is a Muslim, and do not feel comfortable voting for a Muslim (AP-Yahoo Poll Conducted April 2-14) (some polls say 10%).  Notwithstanding that it is a bit crazy to think someone who just publicly dealt with his connections to a crazy Christian pastor is Muslim, it disturbs me that 15% of the country would not vote for a candidate because he is a Muslim.  Isn’t it racist to not vote for someone because he practices a particular religion?  I do not see any other way to describe these attitudes.  Isn’t the Jim Crow era over?  Haven’t we moved on?  Apparently not, for 15% of the country.

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The Free Speech Excuse

The title of this article may be misleading.  To be clear: I am a big fan of the First Amendment.  Freedom of speech is possibly the most important individual human freedom.  Every person in the world should be allowed to freely express himself in “the marketplace of ideas,” except in extremely rare circumstances.

Yet many people confuse the point underlying freedom of speech.  Freedom of speech gives one the right to express him or herself.  However, it does not mean that one should express one’s self in any manner.  John has the right to say: “If you are a non-Christian, you are inferior;” yet Susan does not have to condone this speech simply because John has a right to make that statement.  Freedom of speech works both ways – Susan can judge John and make her judgment known by stating publicly that his statement is bigoted.  If John responds by saying that he should not be condemned because of freedom of speech – this is a false argument.  John has the right to say what he wants, but Susan and all others offended by his comment may judge him at will.

Unfortunately, the above example is not a far-fetched creation from my mind.  In California, a car dealership actually said the following in a radio advertisement (click to hear audio):

Did you know that there are people in this country who want prayer out of schools, “Under God” out of the Pledge, and “In God We Trust” to be taken off our money?

But did you know that 86% of Americans say they believe in God? Now, since we all know that 86 out of every 100 of us are Christians who believe in God, we at Kieffe & Sons Ford wonder why we don’t just tell the other 14% to sit down and shut up. I guess maybe I just offended 14% of the people who are listening to this message. Well, if that is the case, then I say that’s tough, this is America folks, it’s called free speech. And none of us at Kieffe & Sons Ford are afraid to speak up. Kieffe & Sons Ford on Sierra Highway in Mojave and Rosamond: if we don’t see you today, by the grace of God, we’ll be here tomorrow.

Under the “Kieffe & Sons Ford” interpretation of the First Amendment, it seems that (1) Freedom of speech only applies to the majority opinion; (2) if someone makes a statement that offends others, asserting that the statement is “free speech” means the statement should not be condemned.  I’m sure that’s exactly what the founding fathers were going for.  [Not So Silver Lining: Apparently Kieffe & Sons apologized after many complaints, then retracted their apology.]

The essential problem here, and in many usages of offensive speech, is the assumption that free speech does not go both ways.  But it does – anyone has a right to condemn another for saying something that is idiotic, offensive, or short-sighted.  Simply because something is within the right to free speech does not mean it must be condoned, or that a response to that speech is not considered free speech of its own.  Nor does the right to free speech only apply to a majoritarian view.  Any child who has studied Galileo and Copernicus, or Adolf Hitler’s Germany knows that a majority-only free speech rule would be unproductive and dangerous.

Perhaps everything I’ve written in this piece is completely obvious to everyone that will read it.  But there are many people out there that think they should have a “get out of jail free” card for making offensive speech simply because they have a right to make it.  You can exercise a right and be a horrible person at the same time.

[P.S. This reasoning also applies to how both major American political parties argue against “political correctness,” but in different ways and merely to favor themselves.  Maybe sometime soon I’ll write an article about that.]

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This morning I read an interesting article in the Washington Post entitled “When the Rules Run Up Against Faith.”  Essentially, the article was about an excellent female high school cross country and track runner, who was a practicing Muslim and was thus forbidden from showing skin except for her hands and face.  Thus, at track meets, she was wearing a unitard that covered her arms and legs, and was equipped with hood to cover everything but her face, which she wore under her team’s uniform.

Everything was fine for the past three years, in which she raced in that uniform at many track meets.  However, at a recent meet, and one that was very important to her, a meet director told her that her uniform was unacceptable and she was disqualified.   Essentially, his argument was that technically, her uniform violated the rules (his argument is wishy-washy to begin with), so she has to be disqualified.

Assuming that the meet director was entirely correct when he said that her uniform violated the rules, he is still wrong in disqualifying her, because he is ignoring the entire purpose behind the rules.  As far as I can see, there are three purposes behind the rules: (1) to prevent an unfair advantage; (2) to make team uniforms the same to differentiate one team from another; and (3) to prevent athletes from wearing something obscene.

First off, wearing a full body-covering unitard under a uniform is not an unfair advantage.  When I run races, I do so in the lightest and coolest clothing possible.  I don’t want to sweat more than I have to, or carry around extra weight.  She was disqualified at an indoor track meet, where heat is a huge factor – it is very stuffy on an indoor track – so if anything her uniform was a disadvantage.

Secondly, her unitard UNDER her school’s uniform did not make it impossible to differentiate one school from another.  If you want to tell what school she went to – just look at her uniform!  Additionally, many sprinters wear speedsuits at track meets, which essentially look identical to her uniform except without a hood.  Why aren’t they disqualified?

Thirdly, her unitard is far from obscene.  In fact, it’s the opposite – she’s covering up.  The super-PC attitude in high schools today should love this.

The meet director that suspended this young track athlete was following the letter, but not the spirit of the rules.  Sometimes we have to realize that the rules are there for a purpose, not merely to be followed blindly.

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