There’s a petition going around SUU to get the school to revoke their invitation for Elder Holland to speak at the upcoming commencement. This is in response to his anti-LGBT rhetoric at BYU, specifically his comments that BYU employees needed to apply “musket fire” on the Church’s behalf in their fight against gay rights. This puts Elder Holland in a category with many conservative, particularly those with anti-LGBT views, who have been in the line of fire when campuses invited them to speak and students protested their presence.

Those who are rallying to cancel Elder Holland as a speaker are animated by two complaints: 1) his anti-LGBT rhetoric at BYU, and 2) his role as a leader in the Mormon Church. Because SUU (Southern Utah University) is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these students are baffled at why the school would invite him to speak. According to Mindy Benson, current President of SUU:

“We are delighted to welcome Elder Holland as our commencement speaker this year. His southern Utah roots and dedication to education and learning are timely as we wrap up our 125th anniversary year. His address will offer inspiration to our graduates to embrace lifelong learning and give back to their communities as they leave SUU and continue to build their lives.”

Southern Utah Univerity has a student body of just over 13,000. 80% of the students are somehow affiliated with the LDS Church (e.g. members or former members). Yet there are already 5,700 signatures protesting Elder Holland’s engagement as speaker. That’s almost a signature for every two students which indicates a significant level of outrage.

I’ve listened to many political opinions about this trend of cancelling or protesting or heckling conservative speakers who are associated with anti-LGBT views, and while I do see both sides of this issue, I’m frankly not sure which argument is more compelling. Are we creating more division by refusing to listen to “both sides”? Does cancellation only result in further retrenchment among conservatives? Or are some ideas (e.g. that are a call to repeal basic human rights) just too wrong and harmful to entertain?

Conservatives would defend the types of things Holland said as free speech that is protected by law. You’re allowed to hold an opinion, even if that opinion is controversial or not a majority viewpoint. They would claim it is just an opinion, ideas, not incitement to harm others. Detractors would say that it crosses the line into hate speech because it’s an attack on hard-won equal rights, usually for LGBT people, minorities, or women, that are in the cross-hairs. Of late, the anti-trans rhetoric has reached a fever pitch in which some conservatives are calling for the eradication of transgenderism. Their claims that they mean the concept but not the people is prima facie ridiculous. You can’t eliminate transgenderism without harming trans people.

Free speech refers to the right to express any opinion or idea without censorship or restraint. In the context of university campuses, free speech means that students, faculty, and staff have the right to express their views on a wide range of topics, including controversial ones, without fear of censorship, punishment, or retaliation.

Hate speech, on the other hand, refers to any form of speech that attacks or dehumanizes a particular group of people based on their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or other characteristics. Hate speech is often used to spread discriminatory and prejudiced attitudes and can have a harmful impact on individuals and communities.

The difference between free speech and hate speech on campuses is that while free speech is protected, hate speech is not. Universities have an obligation to create an inclusive and respectful environment for all students, and hate speech can undermine this goal. However, it can be challenging to determine when speech crosses the line into hate speech, and universities must strike a delicate balance between protecting free speech and preventing hate speech.

As I’ve said on Twitter, part of the disconnect is that people on the right are prone to minimize violence by calling it speech. Storming the capital, which resulted in actual deaths, has been characterized by some as “free speech.” But on the left there is a trend to refer to speech as violence–that speech is harmful and hurts people, that listening to opposing views is creating trauma and requires a trigger warning. We are probably not creating resilience with this type of narrative, and we need resilience to have the stamina to defeat bigotry. Speakers are not actually indoctrinating students with their ideas, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t attend a commencement if the speaker was someone whose ideas I found reprehensible, or if an invited speaker was on record communicating that an entire category of graduating students were unequal and deserved to be treated as second class, whether that speaker understood the impact of her words or not.

Some of this feels like a timing issue. Maybe we need another twenty or thirty years of bigots dying off, of science catching up, of religions getting less patriarchal. One of the podcasts I listen to, Left, Right and Center, included a statement by the conservative commenter that the view that gay marriage is invalid is still a “mainstream” view. Both the “center” and “left” commenters were taken aback by this assertion, pointing to the high approval rates for gay marriage (roughly 70%), but she stuck to her guns (I mean, probably also actual guns, not just rhetorical guns) and said that if 30% of the public think something, that’s still mainstream; it doesn’t have to be the majority viewpoint to be commonly held.

Students should be exposed to a variety of ideas and viewpoints, and they can disagree or agree as they see fit. Some speakers who’ve either come under fire with protests or been disinvited are those who hold views that women should not be in the workforce, for example. Is that a good message for students? Does having this person speak to students feel like an endorsement of their viewpoints? While hearing these types of viewpoints is probably useful in higher education, ideas can be discussed without elevating them as speakers. We can and should talk about white supremacy, but we don’t need to invite David Duke to speak at commencement for those discussions to happen, do we?

Elder Holland’s qualifications to speak go beyond his church roles, according to the statement by SUU, but it doesn’t alter the concerns of LGBT students and allies at the school who saw what Holland said at BYU and thanked their lucky stars they didn’t attend there and weren’t subject to the open bigotry espoused. From comments on the petition:

  • “As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this makes me question what SUU is really about. No student should feel uncomfortable or disrespected. This is not ok, we are better than this.”
  • “I want all of my students to feel welcome and safe on SUU’s campus, especially during an important and celebratory milestone in their lives.”
  • “I deserve to graduate in peace knowing I am supported by my university. They can plug their Q Centers, diversity quotas, and pride flags. But until the school itself stands up for their queer students, it means nothing.”

Exposing students to controversial ideas is one thing, but throwing disenfranchised students under the bus is another.

  • What is the university’s obligation to protect students vs. to expose them to controversial ideas?
  • Does inviting someone to speak at the university imply endorsement? (It sure as hell does at BYU).
  • Should Elder Holland be cancelled from speaking at SUU’s commencement given the outcry?