Was Prof Wrong to Ask Students to Not Thank God?

Seemingly to prove the thesis of God’s Not Dead—i.e., that colleges and universities are bastions of secular liberalism, staffed by arrogant professors bent on destroying the faith of their students by any means necessary—an East Carolina University chemistry professor told his students last week that they’re not allowed to “thank God” during the department’s graduation ceremony.

According to an email “obtained” by Campus Reform, the right-leaning watchdog group devoted to exposing liberal “bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses,” chemistry professor Eli Hvastkovs sent his students a list of guidelines governing personal statements to be read at the ceremony.

On the whole, the guidelines are innocuous, specifying length and urging proper decorum (“Keep it family friendly, and not gross”), but included in the guidelines is the following statement: “You can’t thank God. I’m sorry about this—and I don’t want to have to outline the reasons why.”

It’s that statement, of course, that has garnered attention and criticism, catapulting the story to the national news, while in the process painting Hvastkovs as an anti-religious pariah bent on propagandizing his students. Commenting on the issue to a local news network, Robert Prati, a professor of finance at ECU, said, “If he’s an atheist and he has those beliefs that’s his business, but he has no business telling our students what to believe.” As anyone who’s spent time in eastern North Carolina knows, being called an atheist is no small matter. Incidentally, Hvastkovs regularly attends church.

ECU was fairly quick to distance itself from Hvastkovs, overturning his putative “ban” on religious speech. In an email to chemistry majors, ECU provost Marilyn Sheerer told students:

Please disregard Dr. Hvastkovs’s previous email regarding your departmental graduation statement he sent to you on May 1, 2014 at 8:00:59 PM EDT. I have confirmed with the Chair of the Department of Chemistry that students may submit personal statements, up to 35 words, to be read during the departmental ceremony. These statements can be your personal expressions and as such the University will only limit these expressions, as permitted by applicable First Amendment law.

Sheerer went on to make it clear that “Religious references of any type will not be restricted.”

The whole fiasco, then, has, turned into what seems like a relatively straightforward issue of the freedom of student expression, including religious expression. At least that’s how the media, along with ECU. In a press release, the university made it clear that it believes that allowing personal statements at graduation ceremonies, including personal statements that contain religious language or references, is important in that “it creates a forum for student expression.” In addition, ECU stressed that “it will use this incident in an intentional way to heighten awareness and understanding of our practices within the university.”

As the ECU statement makes clear, the issue has broader ramifications. Although there don’t appear to be any legal issues involved—no one’s rights were ever actually violated—the putative attempt by Hvastkovs to limit religious speech clearly brings up a host of issues surrounding freedom of speech and religion. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that ECU’s response, coupled with the failure of the media to consider pertinent details, effectively undercuts any broader discussion.

To begin with, the graduation ceremony in question is not university-wide, but an annual departmental affair. In a statement issued to ECU Pirate Radio, Hvastkovs notes that in the past, the ceremony involved little more than reading off the graduate’s name when he or she walked across the stage. Last year, however, Hvastkovs “came up with the idea” to personalize it a bit more by also “reading a little information about the student as they walked up—you know, things like where they will work, if they got into med school, etc.” That was the plan for this year’s ceremony as well.

It’s important to point out, however, that the students themselves, both last year and this year, were not the ones actually reading the statements. Although the media’s discussion of the incident tended to assume otherwise, the job of reading the statements fell to a third party; a source close to the situation confirmed that other professors were responsible for reading the statements. This is why, in the email obtained by Campus Reform, Hvastkovs also requests of his students, “Provide me something written in the 3rd person. Think that someone will read this, it won’t be you.”

This is where the situation gets more complicated. Hvastkovs notes in his statement to ECU Pirate Radio that when he made the initial request for personal statements this year, he “had students that wanted to thank long strings of family members, recite poetry, thank God, thank Allah, thank Jesus Christ, etc.” Concerning the religious references, Hvastkovs also notes in his statement that he “received some feedback that some were not comfortable thanking a God(s) on behalf of the students (remember that the students are not speaking—these are not speeches.”

A source close to the situation with whom I spoke told me that it wasn’t so much that those reading the statements were offended by the religious language used by some students, but that it was an issue of the appropriateness of that language for the occasion; those involved simply wanted no part in using that language, even on behalf of others. That hesitation fits well with Hvastkovs statement to Campus Reform: “It’s not a religious ceremony, it’s purely educational.

It’s evident that Hvastkovs overreached in his email concerning religious expression—and he has since expressed regret over it. But it’s also important to point out that the intention behind the email had less to do with limiting student speech and expression and more to do with those reading the statements and the nature of the ceremony itself. We all, of course, know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the intention is important here, since it points to the tension that speech, in this case religious speech, often has to negotiate.

Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek has often noted that in addition to the set of official mores, rights, and laws that govern a society, is an unwritten code or set of assumptions that govern how the former are to be interpreted and enacted. For example, if an acquaintance at work passes me in the hall and says, “Hey. How are things going?,” I’m aware that it’s not a real question, that she’s not really interested in how my day is going. Why? Because the unwritten code allows me to interpret the “official” question as a simple polite gesture. I thus respond accordingly, “Great. And you?” If, however, I were actually to take the question seriously, perhaps launching into a diatribe over what a horrible day I am having, that would constitute a violation of the unwritten code, perhaps creating a rather awkward situation.

The same goes for religious speech and speech more generally. Although the First Amendment protects freedom of religion and speech, these rights don’t function abstractly; i.e. apart from a larger context that gives them meaning. For better or worse—and, to be clear, sometimes it is for the better, sometimes for the worse—a set of largely unwritten assumptions guides how, when, and in what manner to express or not express these rights. It’s when the code that translates these rights for us somehow ceases to function properly in the background that problems result.

I want to suggest that often when problems crop up around religious or religiously-motivated speech in the United States, they often have less to do with rights per se than with the unwritten code that determines how these rights are to be taken. At least that seems to be the case at ECU.

As I mentioned earlier, the intention never seems to have been to limit student speech. A source close to the situation told me that the rights of the students weren’t even really on the radar of those planning the ceremony. That’s not because of any callous, anti-religious agenda, but because the circumstances of the occasion—the unwritten rules governing the situation— didn’t necessarily warrant such consideration. Hvastkovs and his colleagues seemed to have assumed that the non-religious nature of the ceremony, coupled with the fact that someone else was reading statements on behalf of the students, made excluding religious speech unproblematic and, indeed, appropriate for the situation. As Hvastkovs said in his statement to ECU Pirate Radio, he didn’t consider it a “big issue.”

Although that assumption turned out to be wrong and executed clumsily, it’s not an unwarranted assumption given the circumstances. Although, in the end, students certainly have the right to express themselves, it’s also important to keep in mind that the exercise of this right needs to negotiate the situation and the concerns of others involved. The students at ECU have every right to “thank God,” but that doesn’t mean that others can’t express their hesitancy or discomfort, before or after the fact.

Which is simply to say that the situation is far more complex than has been reported. Rather than being an illustration of a God’s-Not-Dead-style attack on religion, it is, rather, an illustration of the complexities that attend religious speech and the assumptions that govern its expression. It’s on these issues that the real conversation should focus.