Editorial: St. Thomas speaker situation offers lesson

  • Updated: April 16, 2008 - 6:14 PM

Its resolution balances free-speech and college-control issues.

For the third time in as many years, the University of St. Thomas is getting heat about a campus speaker. A campus committee recently rejected a request to provide space for conservative author, columnist and anti-abortion activist Star Parker. Following a barrage of criticism, this week the college reversed the decision and invited Parker to campus.

St. Thomas has been down this path before. Three years ago, controversial author and columnist Ann Coulter spoke and was widely criticized for making inflammatory remarks. And last year, the university's president said Archbishop Desmond Tutu could not speak on campus, causing a public backlash. The president apologized and reinvited Tutu, who chose to speak elsewhere in the Twin Cities last weekend.

In the Parker case, a compromise was struck and the university ultimately made the best decision. She will speak at the O'Shaughnessy Educational Center on the school's St. Paul campus on April 21. As a Catholic college, St. Thomas had come under fire for denying space for someone who agrees with the church's position on abortion.

Yet the university's speaker missteps offer guidance about how private and religious colleges can balance institutional core values with respect for free speech and the duty to expose students to a variety of points of view.

St. Thomas officials said that Coulter's appearance was paid for by an external organization and that the same arrangement was originally made with Parker. But that arrangement gives the college little say in the event.

The university decided to pay for Parker's appearance, which means she must agree to guidelines set out by the college. That contract does not censor speech. Rather, it says that speakers must engage in civil discourse and handle controversial issues in a responsible, respectful manner. As St. Thomas Vice President Mark Dienhart said in a statement, regardless of who pays, the university is ultimately responsible for the impact of speakers on the community and should be a primary party in agreements with speakers. That's wise advice for any college or university.

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