The Uncomfortable Defense: University Students, Abortion, and Censorship

The Student Government Association of Johns Hopkins University has its mind made up.  Thinking about certain things on the way to class is just too hard.  Asking students to open their minds while attending an institution whose purpose is to challenge them to open their minds, is well, just too uncomfortable.

According to Todd Starnes of FoxNews (, the SGA at JHU voted on March 12 to say no to a request by Voice for Life to be recognized as an “official student club.” In an effort to rationalize the rejection of a pro-life organization, one SGA member compared Voice for Life with “a white supremacist group at Towson University.”  Naturally, this association did not sit well with African-American members of Voice for Life.

While calling hateful names without cause is odious and egregious itself, almost as remarkable were some of the other reasons given by SGA senators for the censorship of the pro-life group. SGA senators defended their decision using what I call the Uncomfortable Defense.  In this defense, if certain words or ideas make a person feel uncomfortable, those words and ideas must be banned.  This defense is similar to the Offended Defense often used by legal groups like the ACLU to seek bans on religious ideas and symbols in the public square.  Both forms usually apply only to conservative religious or political speech, never to comparing pro-life groups to white supremacists.

Uncomfortable Dogma

According to Starnes, an SGA senator wrote in an email, “we have the right to protect our students from things that are uncomfortable. Why should people have to defend their beliefs on their way to class?’”

Beliefs are the very things that most university students are eager to defend.  Apparently, the SGA is afraid that JHU students have dogma rather than beliefs, and that their dogma, in this case “a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds,”[1] will crumble in the face of questioning and evidence, making them uncomfortable.

In his 1876 inaugural address as first president of JHU, Daniel Coit Gilman seemed to seek a generation of uncomfortable students.  “The object of the university is to develop character — to make men. It misses its aim if it produced learned pedants, or simple artisans, or cunning sophists, or pretentious practitioners. Its purport is not so much to impart knowledge to the pupils, as whet the appetite, exhibit methods, develop powers, strengthen judgment, and invigorate the intellectual and moral forces.” (

Comfortable Free Speech?

Another SGA Senator wrote, “I understand people’s right to freedom of speech, but this is a private university, and as such, we have the right to protect our students from things that are uncomfortable.”

Translation: “Your free speech ends precisely where it begins to question or to contradict our cherished moral dogma, especially regarding abortion.  Our dogma cannot withstand evidence, arguments, or questions.  JHU students must be protected from these things.” When university student leaders are reduced to defending their decisions with the Uncomfortable Defense, their inability to defend their beliefs and ideas is on parade.  It is a sad day for JHU, for freedom of speech, and for comfortable university students everywhere.

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