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Freedom of Speech, Trinity Voices


Last week, on Constitution Day, I urged the Trinity Community to spend some time reflecting on the question “Is Freedom of Speech in Danger?” I’m delighted to know that some faculty and students took time to discuss this topic in class, and others posted some reflections on the Free Speech Board in the Well.

Dr. Peggy Ann David wrote that her students in the CAS Introduction to Sociology Course (Soc. 100) had a lively debate on the topic of free speech and Pope Benedict’s remarks about Islam. Professor David writes,

Greetings from SOCY 100 Day Introduction to Sociology Class at Trinity. We took up your challenge to exercise our Constitutional right to Freedom of Speech, by incorporating the following in our class discussion on Constitution Day Monday September 18, 2006:

The Text
Our text material included textbook notes on Values in U.S. Society, “freedoms that are essential to teaching and learning,” that is, freedom of speech as articulated in the United States Constitution Bill of Rights – Amendment 1, popularly known as the First Amendment. We also included Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says that, “everyone has the right of freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information … frontiers”

The Context
We discussed freedom of speech in the context of a specific excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI’s speech on Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections in Germany, which provoked outrage in the Muslim world and led to demands that the Pontiff apologize for “insulting Islam.”

The BBC news reported that the specific remarks made by the Pope (once a member of the Professoriate) “On Holy War” at the Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg at a meeting with the Representatives of Science. The remarks in question was a direct quote from part of a dialogue of “the seventh conversation,” carried on in 1931 (circa) by Byzantine Emperor Manuel ll Paleologus and an educated Persian, on the “subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.”

This global incident was unfortunate but timely because our small community of twenty students was discussing Values of United States Society of which “freedom” is most cherished. Even though most students were not aware of the celebration of Constitution Day and the controversial media event, we concluded that the specific text of the Pope’s speech was taken out of context.

Thank you for bringing our attention to the tenth celebration of Constitution Day in the United States on Monday September 18, 2006 and challenging the academy to participate in this exercise. You said it best in your Commencement Remarks 2006, “If we dare not speak, we cannot teach…We need freedom and independence to be true universities.”

On the Free Speech Board in the Well, several comments were notable:

One writer declared: “Americans should always have the right to speak what is on their minds. That is the beauty of this nation. Some countries are not even having this conversation because of oppression. The security of our nation can be achieved and still allow freedom of speech. that is the ‘great balance’.”

Another commented: “We must always remember that the sacrifices of our elders and ancestors contributed to ensure our freedom of speech today. They are counting on us!”

Another writer offered this thought: In response to the question “Is Freedom of Speech in Danger?” she wrote, “Not as long as we have courage and our minds are open. The right to speak carries the duty to listen.”

Someone else wrote, “Did we ever have Freedom of Speech?”

And another wrote, “More people died on 9/11/2001 of AIDS than as a result of terrorism. The attacks of this day are no excuse for hatred or curtailing of rights. Our freedom of speech, among other liberties, is in grave danger.”

So, the dialogue and debate continues in the Trinity community. This is an intellectual community of scholars dedicated to the Constitutional principles of freedom of thought and speech, freedom of belief and freedom of the press, the freedom to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to be free from self-incrimination, the right to privacy, the right to have due process and equal protection of the laws, and all other Constitutional protections. Universities cannot truly exist without such rights and freedoms, and universities have a particular obligation to be effective stewards of these rights and freedoms for the entire society. By exercising these rights in our classrooms and meeting places each day, by studying and proclaiming the freedoms that are the birthright of all human beings, Trinity lives its mission as a true university, as a Catholic institution of higher education with a commitment to social justice, and as an academic community founded to ensure that women — and, by extension, men and all people who come here to learn — have the opportunity to achieve the highest possible level of intellectual engagement for the advancement of our society.

I urge faculty and students to keep sharing your reflections and experiences on these topics — I will post them to this blog if you send them along via the “comment” link (the little envelope) below or send them to

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: