Oklahoma Wesleyan president: “This is not a day care"

Just days after the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University issued an impassioned statement against “safe spaces,” faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are decrying diversity initiatives they fear will undermine speech rights.

In an op-ed Monday in The Wisconsin State Journal, three UW-Madison faculty members—history professor John Sharpless, political science prof. Donald Downs, and hydrogeology prof. Mary Anderson—listed numerous objections to diversity initiatives announced by administrators in November, which they warn represent a major threat to free expression on campus.

“As longtime UW-Madison faculty members who have been active in campus affairs, we salute the university’s commitment to non-discrimination, inclusion and mutual respect, and we support appropriate policies and measures to further these worthy ends,” the professors begin. “But we must express publicly our disagreement with other aspects of the statement, particularly a key clause that is virtually identical to the wording of statements made by the leaders at the University of Missouri and other institutions.”

The clause to which they are referring holds that “individuals are always free to express their own beliefs,” but then contradicts itself by asserting that “no one is entitled to express [opinions] in ways that diminish others, or that devalues the presence of anyone” in the school community.

The professors claim that free speech experts from around the country are in agreement that such statements are “contrary to basic First Amendment principles,” explaining that not only does the statement’s acknowledge of speech rights seem like “an afterthought,” but also that it is “hopelessly vague” about defining the exceptions to acceptable free expression.

“What does it mean to ‘diminish’ or ‘devalue’ someone?” they ask, pointing out that “strongly challenging someone’s ideas, beliefs, or conduct could make an individual feel uncomfortable or diminished in some sense.”

Similarly, they observe that “the statement makes no attempt to articulate which particular ‘ideas’ and ‘opinions’ merit First Amendment protection,” asking, “are only ‘nice words’ to be protected?”

Still more egregious, they add, is the administration’s inclusion of a link to a website where students can report “hate” or “bias” incidents, neither of which is even loosely defined.

[RELATED: Mizzou PD asks students to report 'hateful and/or hurtful' speech]

“Coupling the vagueness and breadth of the terms discussed above with the current tensions and emotions that prevail across the land, this call encourages reporting by both the well-intentioned and the mischievous,” they caution. “Genuine threats and acts of illegal discrimination should be reported, but the website does not so limit its reach.”

Rejecting such “Orwellian” measures, the professors conclude that free speech has actually been a useful tool for “disfavored and oppressed voices” historically, based on the concept that strong ideas thrive in an environment of rigorous challenge and inquiry.

“To be viable, principled, and secure,” they argue, “social justice in a liberal constitutional order must also be based on persuasion and consent, not coercion and intolerance of dissenting views.”

Dr. Everett Piper, President of OKWU, issued an even more vociferous statement last week on the school’s website—unambiguously titled, “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!”—in reaction to a student who complained about feeling “victimized” by a sermon Piper had recently delivered.

The sermon in question related to 1 Corinthians 13, the well-known passage describing love as patient, kind, and so forth. Apparently, “this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love,” Piper explains.

“I’m not making this up. Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic,” he exclaims after relating the incident. “Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them ‘feel bad’ about themselves, is a ‘hater,’ a ‘bigot,’ an ‘oppressor,’ and a ‘victimizer’.”

Addressing both the individual who complained and the university community as a whole, Piper points out that “the goal of many a good sermon is to get you to confess your sins—not coddle you in your selfishness,” and proceeds to offer advice for those who might share the complainant’s perspective.

“If you want the chaplain to tell you you’re a victim rather than tell you that you need virtue, this may not be the university you’re looking for,” he begins. “If you want to complain about a sermon that makes you feel less than loving for not showing love, this might be the wrong place.”

Similarly, for those who are unwilling to confront uncomfortable subjects, particularly in an academic environment, Piper suggests that “there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete