It's not censorship to reject the hate speech of a Latter-day Saint apostle | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

It's not censorship to reject the hate speech of a Latter-day Saint apostle 


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On March 16, Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland was announced as the 2023 commencement speaker for Southern Utah University (SUU), a controversial decision that has sparked rigorous debate as to whether he is fit for the assignment.

In August of 2021, Holland delivered a speech in which he made numerous offensive and bigoted remarks about LGBTQ+ people. He called for "musket fire" against those criticizing LDS teachings and advocating for sexual and gender equality. He also condemned the "recent flag-waving and parade-holding" of LGBTQ+ activists, especially among BYU students and professors, stating that "we have to be careful that love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy."

But perhaps the most insensitive and hurtful part of Holland's address was his criticism of former BYU valedictorian Matt Easton's 2019 commencement speech.

"If a student commandeers a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas in order to announce his personal sexual orientation, what might another speaker feel free to announce the next year until eventually anything goes?" Holland said. "What might commencement come to mean—or not mean—if we push individual license over institutional dignity for very long?"

After hearing such a scathing critique, I immediately went back to Easton's 2019 address at BYU and listened to every word of it.

Far from "commandeering a graduation podium," Easton's words—which were pre-approved by BYU faculty—were unifying, uplifting and filled with gratitude for the wonderful experience that BYU had provided him. In fact, he reserved just two sentences for sharing his sexual identity within a six-minute speech.

Many queer SUU students have found Holland's attack of Easton painfully ironic, pointing out that it is Holland's anti-LGBTQ hate speech that would commandeer their graduation ceremony intended to represent everyone.

Those who oppose Holland speaking argue that anti-LGBTQ sentiments should not be an issue of public debate, political discourse or free speech, and have no place on a university campus, especially a public one. Many are asking why someone who has denigrated the identities and experiences of queer people be given such a powerful platform at a university that has significant queer representation.

Conversely, defenders of Holland have argued that rescinding his commencement address is an act of censorship and "cancellation" that violates his free speech. Tom Christofferson, a publicly gay and active Latter-day Saint, argued along with Jacob Hess in a Deseret News op-ed that the intentions of Holland's "musket fire" speech were to "call for more robust efforts to 'defend' his faith tradition and teachings—not to attack a particular community, and certainly not to justify physical violence."

They framed Holland's remarks as "meaningful differences in perspective" and "disagreements [that] should be an invitation for more dialogue and discussion, not less." Christofferson and Hess point out that cancel culture negatively impacts liberal and conservative voices and should not be used to silence people with whom we disagree.

There is certainly reason in their argument that individuals should not be prohibited from giving speeches because they hold different or unpopular opinions, especially in our increasingly contentious political environment. However, a belief system that degrades the dignity and validity of one's sexual or gender identity is not a "meaningful difference in perspective" and instead constitutes hate speech.

We would never support a speaker who holds the belief that Black skin is inferior to white skin and condemns advocates of racial equality. We should therefore hold those equally accountable who express the belief that LGBTQ+ relationships and identities are inferior to cisgender heterosexual relationships and identities.

Some have argued that protesting Holland's speech constitutes a personal attack against him and his character. However, holding him accountable for his anti-queer rhetoric is far from a personal attack, especially because his personal wealth, power and influence would not be harmed if he were to resign from this speaking assignment.

Kier Whitten, an SUU freshman, identifies as a member of both the LGBTQ community and the LDS Church. "The decision to keep Elder Holland as a speaker will make countless students feel unwanted at their own graduation," she said during a recent campus event as reported by Cedar City News. "I'm aware of this man's accomplishments, but the negative impact on an already marginalized community will be detrimental." Another student expressed: "All I ask is that you realize that many of the students graduating here have been personally hurt by this man's teachings and by his rhetoric and views."

Thus, it is not a matter of attacking Holland or the LDS Church, but rather of protecting LGBTQ+ individuals from those who participate in harmful and dangerous rhetoric.

And perhaps, LGBTQ+ SUU students and allies would be more inclined to accept Holland as speaker if he sincerely apologized for his "musket fire" words, even if he were simply to acknowledge the deep pain and anguish they caused. However, public apologies from LDS authorities are incredibly rare.

Top church leader Dallin Oaks stated in 2015 that the church doesn't "seek apologies" and "we don't give them." While this reluctance to accept accountability is disappointing—especially by a religion that possesses tremendous financial, cultural and political power—the internet and social media are creating a new age of accountability to hold people like Holland in check.

I applaud the countless queer individuals and activists at and beyond SUU who have protested this commencement speech. In fact, an online petition to remove Holland has surpassed 18,000 signatures.

These thousands of individuals make up an inspiring collective effort to advocate compassionately and courageously for those who have historically been marginalized and oppressed. Their unified message does not encourage the censoring or restricting of others' voices and instead calls for robust accountability for powerful individuals who hold and express harmful beliefs.

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Keith Burns

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