Cheryl Abbate was speaking to her class about applying philosophical theories to modern political controversies such as gun rights and the death penalty. Gay rights, however, were out of the question.
“Everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it,” she said.
After class, a 20-year-old conservative student, who asked not to be named, approached Abbate to say he believed gay rights should still be discussed. He recorded their conversation without her permission.
“Are you saying if I don’t agree with gays not being allowed to get married that I’m homophobic?” the student asked.
“I’m saying it would come off as a homophobic comment in this class,” the teacher said.
“Regardless of why I’m against gay marriage, it’s still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions,” the student said.
“There are some opinions that are not appropriate – that are harmful – such as racist opinions, sexist opinions,” she said. “And quite honestly, do you know if anyone in the class is homosexual?”
The student said he did not know the answer to her question.
“Do you not think that would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this,” she asked.
“That’s my right as an American citizen.”
“Actually,” Abbate said, “You don’t have a right in this class especially [in an ethics class] to make homophobic comments.”
The student said that the comments were not homophobic.
“This is about restricting rights and liberties of individuals,” he said. “Because they’re homosexual, I can’t have my opinions?”
Abbate told the student he can drop the class.
“You can have whatever opinions you want, but I will tell you right now – in this class homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments will not be tolerated,” she said. ‘If you don’t like it, you are more than free to drop this class.”
The student went to the Dean of Arts & Sciences and spoke to an Associate Dean. She sent the student to the Chair of the Philosophy Department who “blew off the issue.”
The student dropped the class.
The story was first told on the Marquette Warrior, the school’s blog. The writer, John McAdams said that Abbate was “just using a tactic typical among liberals now.”
“Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up,” the McAdams said.
He continues to say that only certain groups have the “privilege” of shutting up (which includes blacks, gays and women).
“Groups not favored by leftist professors, of course, can be freely attacked, and their views (or supposed views) ridiculed,” McAdams wrote. “Christians and Muslims are not allowed to be ‘offended’ by pro-gay comments. And it is a free fire zone where straight while males are concerned.”
A lawyer for the Foundation for Individual Rights wrote a critical post about Abbate and her approach after McAdams article was published.
“Professors who truly wish to educate should encourage students to voice controversial opinions rather than proclaim from on high that some viewpoints are off-limits,” Susan Kruth said. “Students benefit from having their beliefs challenged, being asked to articulate and defend their own views, and being exposed to differing viewpoints.”
Since the blog was written, Abbate said she has received many emails calling her a “tyrant,” a “stupid, stupid woman,” and a “toxic example to her students.”
“Naturally, these emails are quite upsetting to receive but I have tried to remind myself that they do not reflect the person, philosopher, or instructor that I am,” Abbate said.
Not all have criticized Abbate. An associate professor of political philosophy and ethics at the University of South Carolina wrote a blog saying he agrees with the instructor and that because there is limited class time, Abbate needed to make a decision about how to utilize the time.
“As any professor knows, points may be made in offensive and inoffensive ways,” Justin Weinberg said. “and particular students may be more or less skilled at putting their ideas into words that make for a constructive contribution to the lesson. In light of these factors, it is well within the rights and responsibilities of the instructor to manage classroom discussion in a way she judges conducive to learning.”
University spokesman Brian Dorrington said the school is currently reviewing the concerns and “taking appropriate steps to make sure that everyone involved is heard and treated fairly.”