One week ago, Harvard University narrowly avoided a brush with the devil when a student organization nearly went through with plans to host a satanic ritual in a room underneath the freshman dining hall. Word about this “black mass” began to spread on and off campus during the week before, when students noticed promotional flyers in Harvard Yard and began to organize in opposition to the event. Petitions originating from inside and outside Harvard gathered signatures by the tens of thousands. Catholic leadership in the Archdiocese of Boston called the faithful to prayer and strongly urged the university to shut down the event.

Harvard University did not intervene, but President Drew Faust did release a statement calling the event “an affront to the values of inclusion, belonging and mutual respect that must define our community.” She also attended a holy hour at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge, home of the Harvard Catholic Center, which took place at the same time as the black mass was scheduled. Ultimately, the mounting pressure led the sponsoring student group to cancel the event and abandon its sponsorship of any black mass.

These protests have raised questions about the commitments of generally “conservative” religious groups to freedom of expression, especially coming at a time when the views of conservatives and religious believers are increasingly marginalized on college campuses. Were those agitating against Harvard’s black mass, in the famous words of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, willing to “cut a great road in the law to get at the devil?”

I argue that they were not, despite objections to the contrary from both liberals and conservatives.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Rights and Responsibilities: What is the Purpose of Free Speech?

Freedom of speech in an academic community does not mean that anything calling itself speech must be tolerated. A university can legitimately impose responsibilities on its members and demand that they fulfill those responsibilities when exercising their right of free expression.

At a very basic level, there are certain events that a university is obviously empowered to prohibit. If a student group wanted to hold a day-long nudist exhibition in the center of campus, there would be nothing wrong with the university intervening in the name of decency. If a group planned a burning of the prophet Muhammad in effigy, the university could again step in to shut down the event, in the name of civility.

For religious institutions, which devote themselves to a specific mission, it is natural not to allow events that contradict their aims. Why, though, should religious schools be the only ones with this ability? Although their raison d’être takes a different form, secular schools also deserve the ability to craft an identity and a mission for themselves, and they cannot do so without having control over what occurs on their campuses.

Freedom of speech has a purpose. It furthers the pursuit of truth, aids in the formation of civil communities, and promotes mutual understanding and friendship in the face of disagreement.

Would Stopping the Black Mass have Suppressed Discourse?

The black mass did not serve any of the purposes for which free expression exists in a university setting but in fact objectively undermined those purposes. Some have complained that the uproar in response to the mass constituted a “suppression of discourse,” but it’s hard to understand how any “discourse” was suppressed. The target of protest was not an opportunity for dialogue, but a stunt that, despite arguments to the contrary from its organizers, would have served above all to denigrate the beliefs of another segment of the community. The planned black mass, a parody ritual of the most hateful sort used historically to incite violence against Catholics, repulsed one side of an ongoing discussion by its obscenity rather than bringing opposing sides together.

At the same time, it threatened to harm the community in a number of other ways. To Christian believers, the occult and demonic activity involved posed a serious spiritual threat to campus. To many Harvard freshmen, the event would have compromised their comfort in their own living space. To the building’s staff, it created a deeply inhospitable work environment. To many others, the sheer perversity of the black mass, which is supposed to include a nude woman in place of an altar, made it unwelcome on their campus, especially as the university struggles to address the problems of a destructive sexual culture and widespread sexual assault.

Some argued that Catholics’ concerns ought to have been assuaged by the absurd statements of the host organization that the black mass was in no way intended to offend anyone. In fact, the very nature and essence of such an event is to mock and desecrate Catholic beliefs and practices, and theism in general. To say that the university would not be justified in shutting down an event like the black mass is to say that it should exercise absolutely no control over what happens on its campus.

Instead of facilitating the free exchange of ideas, the black mass would have had a chilling effect on dialogue and truth-seeking, while simultaneously undermining the civility and decency that ought to characterize an academic community. These are the reasons that Harvard ought to have canceled the event.

The action taken by Harvard’s President Drew Faust was therefore unsatisfactory. While she was entirely correct in calling the planned black mass “abhorrent,” and her presence at the Harvard Catholic Center’s holy hour that night was certainly appreciated, she could have shown a great deal of courage and clear-sightedness by realizing that the university need not and should not even appear to tolerate the presence of a satanic ritual. The logical implication of her statement on the black mass was that the university should have prevented the event from taking place.

The apparent danger in the effort to stop the event, which some conservatives identified while the story was still developing, is that our petitions could expose future religious and conservative activities on college campuses to protest and censorship. In this semester alone, academia’s left-wing establishment has shifted noticeably towards the principle that “error has no rights,” where error is defined as disagreement with liberals on particularly sensitive subjects, chief among them the dignity of all human life and the defense of marriage as the union of a man and woman. At elite universities across the country, conservatives’ legitimate role in these important discussions was thrown into dispute, including at Harvard, where one writer called for conformity under the guise of “academic justice.”

Last week at Harvard, were conservatives and people of faith simply making liberals’ case for them? Even if we can see clearly how this event would have been quite different from other events that might be branded as “offensive,” “controversial,” and “hateful,” those who disagree with us may not. What is to stop them from cribbing our arguments in future attempts at censorship?

What’s the Difference between Conservatives and the Satanic Temple?

Our rejoinder begins with the simple observation that the discussion of ideas is the lifeblood of an academic community. The university that cannot tolerate disagreement and debate is destined for an impoverished intellectual culture, to the benefit of neither the majority nor the dissenting minority on a given topic. Therefore, it is imperative that a university welcome disagreements rather than censoring unpopular views.

The calls for university action against the black mass, however, were not motivated by concerns about objectionable ideas getting a hearing at Harvard. Had the event been simply a lecture or discussion of satanic ideas, neither the university’s students and chaplains nor the Archdiocese of Boston would have objected in the way that they did. Rather, their objections were grounded in the fact that, quite apart from any ideas being presented at the event, the event itself was so obscene and so “abhorrent” (to use President Faust’s term) in its anti-Catholicism and anti-theism as to subvert the goals and ideals of the university, such that people of good will ought not to tolerate its presence in their community.

This is what must set the work of conservatives on college campuses apart from this black mass, even in the eyes of non-conservatives. The conservative activities that have come under fire this semester are instances of civil and scholarly discourse open to all and dedicated to pursuing truth and mutual understanding. Their sponsor organizations, which invite others to engage their arguments in a serious and respectful way, are models of what university life should be. There is no analogy to be made between an event like the black mass and other events that simply air controversial ideas.

When it comes to conservative events, the tables are often turned, and intellectual events are twisted by those opposed to their conclusions into acts of aggression. Thus, a visit from Ryan Anderson becomes a threat to some students’ physical safety. It is up to us to shed light on this rhetorical sleight of hand. We cannot prevent others from making the same arguments against future conservative events that we made against the black mass. After all, they had already started making such arguments long before anyone had ever heard of the Harvard Extension School’s Cultural Studies Club.

Rather, it is up to us to respond with better arguments. We must clearly articulate the contribution we make to our universities. We must argue that ideas should never be banned from an academic community because some find them offensive. To do so would contradict the very idea of what a university ought to be. On the other hand, some actions and events are so hate-filled and bereft of any redeeming qualities that their very existence tears at the fabric of a community. Such events should not be allowed to take place.

This is not the same as a willingness to “cut a great road in the law to get at the devil.” On the contrary, it only means living by more sensible laws than the bare freedom to do as you please.