Students at Oxford University have launched a petition calling on the university to remove John Finnis, an emeritus professor of law and philosophy, from his academic position because of Finnis’ purported “discriminatory conduct.” The petition, which has garnered hundreds of signatures, claims the 78-year-old Australian “has a long record of extremely discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people,” and “is known for being particularly homophobic and transphobic.”
Among other things, Finnis is accused of professing that “gay sex is like bestiality—having sex with animals;” that “being gay is ‘evil’ and ‘destructive;’” and that “approving of gay sex is like approving of killing innocent people in a terrorist massacre.” The Oxford Student published Finnis’ response to the charges:
The petition travesties my position, and my testimony in American constitutional litigation. Anyone who consults the Law Faculty website and follows the links in the petition can see the petition’s many errors. I stand by all these writings. There is not a ‘phobic’ sentence in them. The 1994 essay promotes a classical and strictly philosophical moral critique of all non-marital sex acts and has been republished many times, most recently by Oxford University Press in the third volume of my Collected Essays.
Finnis’ statement embodies the man and the academic: Thoughtful, measured, and respectful, yet unwaveringly dedicated to the truth, as has been his entire 50-plus years of scholarship.
I Know Firsthand Finnis Is No Bigot
Students face a similar demeanor in the classroom. I saw this firsthand some 20 years ago when I audited a cross-listed course Finnis taught to philosophy and law students at my alma mater. Finnis’ seminar on natural law at the Notre Dame Law School consisted solely of serious, cerebral philosophical discussions, and like his writings, there was not a speck of the purported “phobic” statements the petition attributes to the scholar.
This reality, coupled with Finnis’ standing as the preeminent natural law scholar of our time, will doom the petition. Yet those dedicated to academic freedom and classical liberalism should shudder at the attempt to silence Finnis because the Oxford petition pushes the modus operandi of punishing politically incorrect professors to a new plateau.
The Oxford petition seeks Finnis’ removal not for anything he has done as a professor, but based solely on his published work. On this point, the petition is clear, noting the university’s harassment policy is unhelpful: “Although it identifies the aims of promoting ‘a positive environment’ of fairness and respect, ‘free from harassment’, it does not provide guidance on how to deal with professors who target disadvantaged people more generally (e.g. through their published work).”
The petition then bemoans the need for “students and staff have to wait for a person-to-person instance of harassment or victimisation before they can complain about the intolerant atmosphere and intimidation that these professors create.” These excerpts highlight (at least) three troubling propositions.
First, the petition signatories view academic research, including scholarship published in top-tier journals and the upper echelon of university presses, as harassment. Second, the petition makes clear that the student signatories view natural law and the precepts of the Catholic church and traditional Christian churches as adopting homophobic, transphobic, and “extremely discriminatory views.” Third, the petition’s reference to awaiting a “person-to-person instance of harassment or victimisation,” exposes the students’ view that a classroom lecture that includes Finnis’ scholarship would be verboten.
Should Students Take Courses from ‘Evil’ Professors?
Oxford students, however, are not the only ones taking this tack. Justin Weinberg, a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina, suggested the petition raised “an interesting question about whether students should have to fulfill their curricular requirements by taking courses from a professor who is on record stating that an important part of their identity is ‘evil.’”
To be clear, what Finnis called “evil” was “homosexual conduct”—not the homosexual or the homosexual’s orientation. And his position is consistent with Catholic teaching, which is based on tradition and “Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity.”
Although Weinberg refused to take a position on the merits of the petition, the analogies he proffered foreshadow a bleak future for Catholics and traditional Christians in “higher” education.
“We could ask,” Weinberg wrote, whether “a Jewish student [should] have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that the Nazis were right in believing that there should be no Jews? Or, should an African-American have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that it would be advisable for the U.S. to return to legalized slavery?”
The mere equating of natural law jurisprudence to Nazism and slavery suggests the future is already here, and it is bleak indeed.
Margot Cleveland is a senior contributor to The Federalist. Cleveland served nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk to a federal appellate judge and is a former full-time faculty member and current adjunct instructor at the college of business at the University of Notre Dame.
The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.