Notre Dame Professor Sues the Student Newspaper

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Carl R. Trueman headlined “A Notre Dame Professor Sues the Student Paper”:

Stories of students canceling speakers have become commonplace in recent years. Last week South Bend, Ind., saw a new riff on this theme when Notre Dame sociology professor Tamara Kay sued a student newspaper for defamation, alleging that it misrepresented comments she made about abortion.

At issue are articles published in October 2022 and March 2023. Ms. Kay disputes the latter article’s assertion that she was “posting offers to procure abortion pills on her office door.” The defense brief says this was based in part on a sign posted on Ms. Kay’s office door: “This a SAFE SPACE to get help and information on ALL Healthcare issues and access—confidentially and with care and compassion.” Ms. Kay also alleges the March article falsely attributes statements to her at an appearance before the Notre Dame College Democrats; the paper says a transcript shows the quotations are substantially true. The Rover has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit under Indiana’s anti-SLAPP legislation designed to protect freedom of speech.

While the lawsuit’s immediate context is Notre Dame and its Catholic identity, the underlying issues raise deeper and broader questions about religious educational institutions and academic freedom.

Every employee today is faced with a diminishing private square. As social media has made public everyone’s views on everything, the ability to separate professional and personal lives has been all but lost. We may not formally speak for our employer when we post on Facebook, but the public marketplace allows for no such distinction. An allegedly racist tweet or an off-color remark on TikTok can cost someone his job.

This dynamic is universal, but the problem intensifies when one works for a religiously affiliated institution. Religion has typically forsworn the public-private distinction, and employees have traditionally been expected to live lives shaped in every sphere by their religious commitments. A business owned by traditional conservative Christians likely won’t approve of its employees having abortions. That was part of the motivation for Hobby Lobby’s objection to the ObamaCare regulation mandating that employee insurance cover abortifacients.

When the religious institution is one committed to education, there’s the added complication of academic freedom. It would seem obvious that the person who teaches at a religiously affiliated school necessarily accepts qualifications to that freedom. To deny this would be to raise serious questions about what the school’s religious affiliation means. No doubt this would be uncomfortable for some—but we live in a free country and nobody is required to teach at religious universities.

How can these institutions maintain both their clear religious convictions and their academic integrity while also remaining places that educate rather than indoctrinate? That question will always be difficult to answer as long as the focus is on the freedom of the professoriate.

A large part of the solution lies not with those who teach but with those who are taught. It’s reasonable for professors at religiously affiliated schools to be required to teach in a manner that doesn’t contradict the institution’s values. There’s no parallel demand for students. When they have the right to challenge their professors, the classroom welcomes fruitful intellectual dialogue—not groupthink.

This applies across ideological lines. A religiously affiliated school with open enrollment must protect the right of all students to question their professors’ views. That doesn’t mean it must formally recognize groups that are opposed to the school’s religious commitments or allow defamatory or slanderous attacks on a professor’s character. It does, however, mean that no student should live in fear of being disciplined—let alone being sued—for voicing divergent views or for subjecting a professor’s beliefs to public scrutiny. This is basic to the kind of dialogue that is necessary in the classroom and on campus for the promotion of true intellectual engagement rather than rote learning.

This makes events at Notre Dame significant. The possibility of professors’ suing students will have a chilling effect on academic freedom and the integrity of any religiously affiliated school. Probably few professors would contemplate legal action against students, but what student will want to take the risk? And where do the boundaries of challenges to the professor’s teaching lie? In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or in the pungency of whatever argument a lawyer might make in court?

A decision in favor of Ms. Kay seems unlikely—plaintiffs face a high bar in proving liability for defamation when they are public figures or, under Indiana law, when the case involves a matter of public concern. But it would do immediate catastrophic damage to the university’s intellectual and religious integrity. Student newspapers need press freedom if academic freedom is to mean anything—just as professors who teach at religious institutions must forgo unlimited academic freedom if the schools’ religion is to mean anything.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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