An open letter on academic freedom
Letter to the Editor | Monday, March 6, 2023
Universities across the country wrestle with what it means to maintain academic freedom and free speech under the weight of an increasingly polarized culture. Law schools have not been immune to the influences of cancel culture, with prestigious institutions making headlines such as “US Judge Won’t Hire Yale Law Clerks Citing ‘Cancel Culture’” and “Georgetown’s Cowardice on Free Speech.” Responding to the escalation of these issues, Justice Alito even characterized free speech in law schools today as “abysmal.” These culture wars have left almost no campus untouched, including our own.
I am a member of the Journal of Law, Ethics, and Public Policy (JLEPP), a journal that “provides a forum for discussing public policy questions from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian intellectual and moral tradition,” striving to “create an environment in which a variety of philosophical, religious, moral and political positions concerning public policy questions can be articulated and assessed.”
In addition to other publications, JLEPP publishes an annual symposium issue on a topic chosen by the executive leadership. This year’s symposium issue was titled “The Crossroads Between Education Policy, Free Speech & Parental Rights,” and members of the journal were encouraged to submit articles to be considered for publication.
I decided to write for this special issue, focusing on sex education policy in the United States. In approving my topic, the executive symposium editor noted that he “looked forward to my contribution.”
My article discusses the current piecemeal landscape of sex education policy and its negative effects on children. The article advocates for all states to mandate comprehensive sex education curricula that is medically accurate, objective, age appropriate, religiously neutral and non-discriminatory, discarding harmful and ineffective curriculum like abstinence-only education. These policies should also require schools to permit preliminary parental access to materials used and include opt-out provisions, allowing parents and guardians to excuse their students.
Six days after I submitted my article, I received an email from our executive symposium editor informing me that despite my piece being “well-written and well-Bluebooked, it runs contrary to the mission of our Journal as articulated in our bylaws” and consequently, they were unwilling to publish my article.
I could not understand how our broad and its seemingly inclusive mission statement could be grounds for excluding the type of policy discussion I offered. I organized a meeting with the editor-in-chief and the executive symposium editor to discuss the grounds for rejection they presented. I was informed that my paper not only “violated” the mission of the journal, but that it was a poor reflection on the leadership and the University as an institution.
Apparently, my discussion of the misuse of the word “grooming” in predominately conservative media outlets, the number of citations to Planned Parenthood and my reference to abortion “access” cumulatively placed the article outside the realm of the dialogue they would allow the journal to engage with. I was told that I should have been more conscientious about the religious and political views of the executive board while writing the article, and that they never would allow Notre Dame’s name to be associated with my article’s perspectives.
Notre Dame Law School is known for educating lawyers in a comprehensive manner that enables us to successfully navigate the complexities of a complicated world. This, of all places, should be an environment that fosters a community in which ideological, religious or political differences are not reasons for division, but instead opportunities for dialogue.
It is this culture of collaboration that brought me to this law school and to this journal, eager to engage across a wide moral and political spectrum with similarly driven lawyers-to-be. I have found that most of my colleagues are committed to this mission, making this isolated experience even more disappointing. It is instances like this that threaten to devolve us into an unfortunate state of ordinary — intellectual closed-mindedness. This mindset has no place anywhere in our university.
Our campus is one that strives for unity, but this does not and cannot erode into demands for uniformity of thought. Intentional exclusion of different viewpoints —and by extension, members of our community — destroys what makes our university special and is so very needed in our increasingly divided country.
Actions like those taken by the JLEPP leadership cannot go unaddressed. It is my hope that this letter will draw attention to the necessity that we zealously preserve what makes our law school and our university a place that develops leaders and change-makers. Intellectual diversity, free speech and effective dialogue are not merely concepts, but are choices that need to not be stymied, instead defended and nurtured through each disagreement.
second-year law student
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.