Does Freedom of Speech Require Tolerating the Teaching of Homophobia?

What happens when religious freedom comes face-to-face with hate speech laws? In the case of University of Illinois adjunct professor Ken Howell, hate speech can cost you your job.

Howell taught courses in Catholicism, including Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought. Before an exam toward the end of the spring semester, Howell sent an email to his students explaining Catholic beliefs pertaining to homosexuality.

According to Howell, “Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

I don’t know how a Catholicism professor became an expert on anything related to natural law, which certainly seems to be related to science, not religion. Furthermore, how is homosexuality denying reality? LGBT people have relationships that are just as real and natural as heterosexuals.

While it’s unclear how Howell determined that morality requires all relationships to be straight in order to be appropriate, it is seemingly clear that Howell had no place teaching his prejudice to his students as if it’s fact.

An anonymous student emailed Robert McKim, head of the religion department, about Howell’s email. Howell was subsequently fired.

Howell claims that the firing violates his academic freedom and that he was merely agreeing with the church’s teaching regarding homosexuality.

But the problem is that Howell did not simply teach his students the tenets of the Catholic religion. He declared that homosexuality violates natural laws, a statement that prevents independent thought, limits students’ world views, and ostracizes LGBT students. Howell was not promoting independent thinking and academic stimulation by letting students engage in discussion and draw their own conclusions.

Academic freedom does not entail the ability to teach your students your opinions as if they are facts. Howell is free to spread his prejudices to others, but the University of Illinois has no responsibility to continue to provide him with a platform to teach his homophobia to students.

The Allied Defense Fund, a legal alliance for religious advocacy and freedom, is examining Howell’s case. David French, a lawyer at the Allied Defense Fund, claims that a “university cannot censor professors’ speech — including classroom speech related to the topic of the class — merely because some students find that speech ‘offensive.’”

Sure, but they can censor speech in the classroom when it’s related to a professor’s personal prejudices or when the professor falsely presents information to mislead students. This isn’t a case of a victim of intolerance who can’t exercise free speech. It’s a case of a professor using his position to inappropriately spread hate that doesn’t belong in the classroom. Howell’s email doesn’t sound like a reminder of the Church’s views on homosexuality to help students on an exam; it sounds like an attempt to convince his students that homosexuality is immoral.

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