SLU Community Navigates the Limits of Civil Discourse

Editor’s note: The initial article quoted Marquis Govan that SLU’s Office of Student Responsibility and Community Standards had not reached out regarding his report; in fact, OSRCS had reached out to Marquis prior to the publication of the article.

On Monday, Nov. 8, SLU’s Students for Life (SFL) constructed a pro-life display on campus. The purpose of this display, which featured red flags signifying the annual abortion rate, was to memorialize aborted fetuses. Quickly after its construction, disapproving SLU students began to take action. Many took flags out of the ground or uprooted signs. Those who opposed the demonstration stated that it was traumatizing for women who have made the choice to have an abortion.

The president of SFL, Isabelle Hortard, stated that the display was not meant to trigger or upset anyone. “I think it was a shock to us that people automatically interpreted what we were doing as some form of shame,” Hortard said. “And looking back, I can see how someone who views our movement in a different light would automatically think that. But we were really trying to convey how often [abortions] happen.”

However, the display did not only spark dialogue among students, but conflict as well. The day after the pro-life memorial was created, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, two students were filmed stomping on flags and taking them out of the ground, shouting toward the camera. Later that day, a group of students supporting Planned Parenthood gathered at the clock tower, and it was during this time that tensions peaked. 

First year student and activist Marquis Govan was a part of the pro-choice group that night. He explained that he was trying to put up signs and pass out chalk when a confrontational pro-life student approached him. “I just remember this very aggressive student. She came out of nowhere.” Govan said that the student proceeded to push into him in order to take down Planned Parenthood signs. He also recalled the student calling him expletives and offensive language. 

Govan reported this verbal and physical assault to the Department of Public Safety, but he feels that this event is not being taken seriously by SLU administration. 

“I have not been contacted by Community Standards,” Govan said. “I don’t know what’s going on with the investigation. I do not know if they are going to contact me. It’s been several days. I’m really concerned that nothing’s going to happen.”  

Hortard did not have knowledge of this event specifically, but she stated that she encouraged members of SFL to remain peaceful when expressing their ideals.

The climate surrounding different student groups’ and individual students’ demonstrations on campus also comes in anticipation of an event set for Wednesday, Dec. 1 that features right-wing speaker, blogger and podcast host Matt Walsh. It will take place in the Wool Ballrooms of the Busch Student Center and is open to both the SLU community and the general public. Hosted by SLU College Republicans, Walsh’s talk is called “Why the Pro-Life Movement Is Center Stage In The Culture War.”

Despite this designated lecture topic, members of SLU College Republicans’ executive board believe he may be changing the focus due to a Tweet Walsh posted Tuesday, Nov. 9, in which he proposed “leftist groups at SLU” to “come to the talk and give me a coherent definition of the word woman (that comports with leftist gender theory).”

Junior Nick Baker, president of SLU College Republicans, said that since this Tweet was posted, it isn’t clear if Walsh will stay on topic. “We’re definitely hoping that he sticks with the pro-life issue,” Baker said. “Personally, I agree with either of the speeches he goes with, but we definitely prefer that he sticks to what we requested initially.”

Junior Ryan Olson, a member of SLU College Republicans, added that in the end, it’ll be up to Walsh’s volition.

“Once he gets up there with the mic, it’s like, if he so chooses to go off, then he has to deal with whatever SLU’s going to do,” Olson said.

Originally, this event was to be co-sponsored by SLU College Republicans and Students for Life, but following this uncertainty, SFL has backed out of hosting. Instead, they’ll help facilitate discussions following the event to debrief. 

In the wake of much of the virtual and public discourse, a number of students on campus have voiced concerns for certain beliefs Walsh holds, as well as his style of relating them to the public. Among them is senior Sam Dovin. In partnership with her social work class and SLU’s Social Work Association (SWA), Dovin has drafted a letter addressed to President Fred Pestello and Provost Michael Lewis voicing their concerns with this event. In addition, SWA is circulating the letter alongside a petition for any students, faculty or external community members to sign, calling on Pestello and SLU administration to have Walsh’s invitation rescinded. 

“There’s a difference between political discourse and then crossing into invalidating groups of people and their experiences,” Dovin said. “As a class, we decided that [Walsh] does not align with Jesuit values at all.”

However, members of SLU College Republicans believe that bringing Walsh to campus will humanize him and separate him from his “internet self,” which they acknowledge as being controversial. 

“I think that one of the big struggles with bringing prominent conservatives to campus is that they do tend to have lots of following and support,” Olson said. “…It almost brings up this them versus us dichotomy. And I think the more we can normalize bringing people like Matt Walsh to campus, the easier these conversations will be.”

But Dovin believes Walsh’s violent internet presence can’t be separated from his speech at SLU, even if he were to remain on the original topic. Dovin says his social media presence is what she believes to be one of his main threats to women, the LGBTQIA+ community and students of color. Dovin argues: “Permitting Mr. Walsh to speak in one of the biggest rooms on campus is promoting his hateful beliefs, beliefs which I know conflict with my Jesuit education.”

The final matter Dovin and SWA’s letter addresses concerns issues with the University policy that allowed Walsh’s lecture in the first place. They state: “We are not in support of ending civil discourse and the discussion of various points of view, rather we are in support of closing loopholes that create opportunities for hate speech.”

Vice President of Student Development Dr. Sarah Cunningham is the responsible official for the Civil Discourse, Speech and Expression Policy, which was created in 2016 alongside the Speech, Expression, and Civil Discourse Committee (SECDC). In order for student groups on campus to host a speaker, they must submit a proposal to this committee, which is made up of students, faculty and staff. After it’s approved, the proposal is sent to the Student Involvement Center, where the event is posted on SLU Groups and officially recognized by SLU. 

“One of the things I think we run into from time to time in higher education, and particularly here at SLU, is this kind of clunky intersection between our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and our commitment to expression,” Cunningham said. “Those things don’t always cross at a pretty intersection.”

Cunningham clarified that since this is a student sponsored event, not technically hosted by the University, members of the SLU community who have issues with the event should contact the students hosting the event directly to create dialogue around their concerns. 

“You have to remember the sponsoring students are my students too,” Cunningham said. “I have as much responsibility to event hosts as I do to event attendees, and that gets tricky.”

Shannon Cooper-Sadlo, Ph.D, is the program director for the undergraduate Social Work and CCJ programs and faculty advisor for SWA. She’s spearheading the advocacy to change administrative policies that vet speakers who come to campus and is concerned about Walsh’s relevance to the pro-life movement and his “distinct purpose of causing problems.”

“He has no qualifications to spread pro-life ideas,” Cooper-Sadlo said. “It really is about his own self-promotion, inflaming the situation and creating division.”

Despite the outcome of SWA’s petition, Cooper-Sadlo is working with the School of Social Work’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team to create space on campus for open dialogue during the time of Walsh’s event, which aligns with Cunningham’s approach to the situation.

“One of the things I’ve learned throughout my career is that more dialogue and conversation is always where I would invite students to go in our community, particularly when there are things that are troubling or false,” Cunningham said.

However, Govan expressed concerns with which discourse the University officially allows to occur on campus. While SFL is chartered by SLU, the student group B!llikens for Reproductive Justice must remain unaffiliated in order to carry out their advocacy, due to SLU’s Catholic values.

“It is ironic and very hypocritical to me that the administration would hold these talks about civil discourse while censoring literally half the folks within this conversation by saying that pro-choice groups cannot exist on campus,” Govan said.

Still, members of SLU College Republicans say that their intention with inviting Walsh to campus is not to silence groups of students, but to diversify campus lecturers.

“A lot of times when you bring these speakers on, the yelling becomes so loud that it’s hard to have dialogue, and we want to minimize that as much as we can,” Olson said. “Because we do want dialogue, that is our goal.”

Dovin agrees with the goal of having open discourse, but she struggles with the method of achieving that goal. Where SLU College Republicans found Walsh to be representative of their values, Dovin believes the divisive nature of Walsh’s persona eliminates any opportunity for dialogue between differing schools of thought. Regardless of the outcome, Olson remains optimistic about the culture of discourse at SLU.

“If the invitation is rescinded because there’s so much student opinion [surrounding] it, the silver lining would be at least SLU is listening to somebody,” Olson said.