Fordham struggles to defend condemning Ann Coulter, while embracing infanticide supporter Peter Singer
Fordham University is in a bit of a bind.
After loudly proclaiming his “disgust” with the “hate speech” of conservative pundit Ann Coulter in an email to all students, in the process slamming the Fordham College Republicans—his own students—as immature bigots who lack character, Fordham President Joseph McShane, S.J., is now faced with defending his administration’s invitation to philosopher and infanticide advocate Peter Singer to participate in a panel on “animal ethics.”
This puts Fordham in a tough spot.
Father McShane could have allowed the marketplace of ideas to function on its campus without engaging in an electronic temper tantrum. (To his credit, he did not ban Coulter from campus, although the College Republicans clearly saw which way the wind was blowing and canceled the event themselves—here’s one student’s reaction to that.) But he didn’t, and now Fordham is stuck trying to justify McShane’s statement.
In response to an email from a College Insurrection reader provided to us, Bob Howe, Senior Director of Communications at Fordham, penned the following response, attempting to explain why having Peter Singer advocating his positions on campus is totally different from having Ann Coulter advocate her positions:
Dear Ms. [REDACTED],
Though many of Peter Singer’s positions are extreme, and at odds with Catholic teaching, he is a faculty member at a major university with a track record of serious publications. He was invited by our theology faculty, for a panel sponsored by several academic departments and the Office of the Provost. In contrast with Ann Coulter, Singer is not accustomed to argument by ad hominem attack. To the best of our knowledge, he does not slander people who hold opposing views, nor denigrate people’s race, gender, nor faith.
It was not Ms. Coulter’s politics, but her rhetoric that drew Father McShane’s statement. In the past several years we’ve hosted Richard A. Galen, Newt Gingrich, Carl Rove, Ari Fleischer, and John Brennan, who received an honorary degree and delivered our Commencement address in 2012. We’ve hosted speakers from across the political spectrum, in fact, none of whom has occasioned this kind of statement. Ann Coulter’s propensity for slurs and hate speech is well-documented, and her (now cancelled) appearance couldn’t pass without comment.
To issue a statement on Professor Singer’s philosophical, logical, and moral shortcomings would be overstepping the boundaries of academic discourse. In trying to protect the University, we would be undermining the independence of our faculty, and some of the very values for which Fordham stands.
There are two solid theologians and a promising theologian-in-training on the panel, as is the editor of the conservative magazine First Things, R.R. Reno (mentioned here: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2012/11/01/discussion-of-animal-ethics-at-fordham/). The panel is moderated by one of our own theology faculty, Charles Camosy. There will be a substantial counterpoint to Professor Singer’s views on the panel, and that is the place where his arguments should be rebutted. We have faith that the theologians will represent Church teachings and moral theology with great fidelity and vigor.
The problems with Fordham’s response are numerous enough that I can’t tackle them all here, but I’ll try to hit the highlights.
For instance, both McShane and Howe accuse Coulter of engaging in “hate speech.” That’s a term you hear a lot, but it has no meaning in American law, there’s no exception for it in the First Amendment, and there’s not even a commonly agreed-upon definition.
A relevant example of how absurdly the term can be used comes from Gonzaga University (another Jesuit institution) in 2003, where a student group was punished by the administration for “hate speech” because it posted flyers with the book title “Why the Left Hates America” on them, as the group had invited the author of the book to come and speak on campus. In that case—and I am not kidding, here—the use of the word “hate” was classified as “hate speech.” As long as hate speech has no agreed-upon definition, accusing someone of engaging in it will constitute a form of name-calling, not an argument.
Fordham then argues that it can be against Coulter coming to speak and for Peter Singer coming to speak because Singer does not engage in argument by “ad hominem attack,” that he has a track record of serious publications, that he was invited by faculty and administrators, and that generally he is less mean than Ann Coulter. In other words, Singer is a serious scholar and therefore should be free to make his case at Fordham and even invited by administrators to do so. Indeed, “to issue a statement on Professor Singer’s philosophical, logical, and moral shortcomings would be overstepping the boundaries of academic discourse.” Meanwhile, Coulter is an unserious and hateful jerk who can only be grudgingly tolerated on campus, and even then only when accompanied by a statement about the “philosophical, logical, and moral shortcomings” of both Coulter and the students who invited her.
This argument might actually have some credibility if Fordham were a place where the marketplace of ideas on campus was limited to serious scholars. As a private university, Fordham could indeed create that kind of environment. But like most universities, it doesn’t.
In the very next paragraph, Howe points out that many non-academics have spoken at Fordham, citing campus appearances by “Richard A. Galen, Newt Gingrich, Carl [I have to presume he means Karl] Rove, Ari Fleischer, and John Brennan.” And, while he doesn’t mention it, Fordham’s 2006 commencement speaker was MSNBC host Chris Matthews, another non-academic political pundit who is at least as famous as Ann Coulter, and as widely derided by those on the opposite side of the political spectrum from him.
So what’s left of Fordham’s reasoning?
This: “It was not Ms. Coulter’s politics, but her rhetoric that drew Father McShane’s statement.” From the tenor of Howe’s and McShane’s statements, this does indeed seem to be the real core of the objection: in the judgment of Fordham, Coulter’s style of argumentation is uniquely sinister, regardless of her political views, to the extent that students should be publicly shamed for inviting her. Simply put, Father McShane and Fordham think Coulter makes arguments that are more divisive or hateful than Peter Singer, Chris Matthews, or Karl Rove. You might agree with this assessment. You might disagree. Your view is just as valid as Fordham’s official view, because it’s simply a matter of personal opinion.
If we are to take Fordham at its word about why it objects to Coulter, we can only conclude that the university (or perhaps just Father McShane) has some sort of civility or kindness litmus test for the rhetoric of its speakers—a litmus test that Coulter failed but that Singer and the others mentioned above passed.
A litmus test whose rules are either secret or arbitrary, but which is so important that it warrants an email to all students (and their parents) when some of those students invite a speaker who might violate it. After all, Fordham did not even wait for Coulter to give her speech before condemning her for it.
What drives this fear of uncivil speech? Can Fordham’s adult students not be trusted to make up their own minds about the views expressed by a speaker? Does Father McShane believe that Ann Coulter is so diabolically clever that her use of “disgusting” rhetoric and “hate speech” will somehow fool Fordham students into believing what she wants them to believe? If so, he has a significantly lower opinion of the quality of American college students than I do.
If Fordham students truly lack the ability to listen to an invited speaker, separate rhetoric from reality, and make up their own minds, then Fordham has much graver problems than Ann Coulter coming to campus.
Robert Shibley is Senior Vice President of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)