A letter from the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., to the university community about speech and DePaul's values

October 14, 2016

Early voting has now begun and, across America, people are engaged in intense and consequential discussions.  These conversations also are happening on our campus, as they should.  In recent days, however, I’ve received questions from some of you about the role of free speech at DePaul.  I first wrote about this in April, but I would like to share additional thoughts on this complex topic as we move through the days ahead.

DePaul is a private Catholic institution, and we also are part of the academy.  By our nature, we are committed to developing arguments and exploring important issues that can be steeped in controversy and, oftentimes, emotion.  Yet there will be times when some forms of speech challenge our grounding in Catholic and Vincentian values.  When that happens, you will see us refuse to allow members of our community to be subjected to bigotry that occurs under the cover of free speech.  In fact, you have seen this in past months, as we have declined to host a proposed speaker and asked students to redesign a banner that provokes the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some people will say that DePaul’s stance unfairly silences speech to appease a crowd.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  As we experienced last spring, it’s not difficult to agree that there is a difference between a thoughtful discussion about immigration and a profane remark about Mexicans scrawled in the Quad; or between a panel on racial climate and a noose — a powerful symbol of violence and hatred — outside a residence hall.  In both recent cases, the first, we encourage; the second, we abhor.

If you read DePaul’s Guiding Principles on Speech and Expression, you will see that our Vincentian values were in the forefront six years ago when these guidelines were developed.  Though a group of your own DePaul colleagues are giving them a fresh look for updates, the current guiding principles still apply.  I encourage you to read the entire document to gain a better understanding of the balance between our values and speech.  In particular, I ask you to reflect on these sentences: “We accept that there is a distinction between being provocative and being hurtful.  Speech whose primary purpose is to wound is inconsistent with our Vincentian and Catholic values.”

Disagreements will happen on important issues—many that are personal to members of our community for whom race, immigration, gender disparities, religious beliefs and economic privilege are more than conversation topics; they are part of an inescapable lived experience.  Students and others will almost certainly continue to explore and seek the exact limits of our tolerance for free expression when that expression is meant to cause distress.  Certainly, everyone is allowed to have their opinions on these topics.  I simply ask when you are expressing your opinion that you respect the difference between a reasoned discussion and words whose primary purpose is to wound.  I also ask that the university community refuse to “rise to the bait” in those moments when speech may become uncomfortable or even exasperating, but falls within the bounds of the academy’s commitment to full and robust debate.

These judgements are challenging ones.  In time, we will develop clearer standards for such expression, but for now, I ask for a generosity of understanding as we develop categories and language that will help us address and honor all the concerns that have been rightfully raised. 

Finally, I’d like to thank you all for the constructive feedback you’ve given me and other administrators about the Speech and Race Action Plan​ that has been set in motion.  It is a living document and we anticipate we will make changes and additions.  I appreciate and feel blessed that so many of you are eager to get involved to strengthen our community and make DePaul better.  Thank you for your help on this journey.