A bisexual male student at the University of Texas–San Antonio said during an informal conversation outside class that he was uncomfortable with Islam because people still receive the death penalty for being gay in 10 Muslim-majority countries.
For expressing this thought, the student—Alfred MacDonald, who no longer attends the school—was instructed to meet with the chair of the philosophy department, Eve Browning. Prof. Browning told MacDonald in no uncertain terms that he had committed the crime of "offending" someone, and she warned him that his habit of saying what he thinks could bring down the entire program. She threatened to call the Behavior Intervention Team and refer MacDonald to counseling. She did everything but send him to Room 101.
"We have not designed our program to tolerate these behaviors," Brown tells MacDonald at one point. Later she adds, "We're not going to let you damage the program."
First Browning accuses MacDonald of skipping class, leaving early, and causing disruptions. MacDonald attributes his tardiness to a medical condition, but notes that he has been doing better on this front ever since his professors approached him about the issue. Browning rejects that this matter is settled—she claims that if skipping class was no longer a problem, it wouldn't be listed as a problem on the sheet of paper she's reading from—and moves on to the more serious charge: MacDonald offended someone.
Apparently, MacDonald had engaged in a conversation with a Christian student who noted she was marrying a Muslim man. It was then that MacDonald expressed his discomfort with the religion:
MACDONALD: I said that I was bothered that I could be killed in 10 Muslim countries. I'm bisexual. So they'd definitely do that in the 10 countries where I would be— you know.
BROWNING: Doesn't that strike you as an inappropriate thing to say about someone's fiance?
MACDONALD: I wasn't talking about the fiance. The fiance could have whatever interpretation of the religion that they want. I said something like…(thinking) that I…yeah it wasn't about the fiance, it was about the religious practices in those countries.
BROWNING: How is it appropriate to bring that up in connection with someone's fiance?
MACDONALD: They brought it up. The Islam part.
BROWNING: And you brought up the threat to your life as posed by this fiance?
MACDONALD: No. We got to the subject of Islam, not the fiance.
BROWNING: Do you understand how someone would find that offensive?
MACDONALD: How someone would find that offensive, yeah; how they could perceive it, yeah; yeah, I mean, if I…
BROWNING: It's a confusing comment to me because Muslims do not all live in countries in which bisexuals are executed. Muslims live in the United States—
BROWNING: —Muslims live in France, Muslims live in every country in the world—it's the fastest growing world religion.
MACDONALD: Yeah, one of my good friends at the university is Muslim.
BROWNING: And do you tell him that you object to his religion because there are places on earth where gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are discriminated against, including your own country?
MACDONALD: Well, "her." And my verbiage was "killed" not "discriminated against." I mean, death penalty's pretty severe.
BROWNING: What does that have to do with her being engaged to a Muslim?
MACDONALD: Nothing. I wasn't talking about the engagement to the Muslim. I was talking about Islam in that particular moment.
BROWNING: Well, let me just say that kind of thing is not going to be tolerated in our department. We're not going to tolerate graduate students trying to make other graduate students feel terrible for our emotional attachments.
MACDONALD: Um…all right.
BROWNING: And, if you don't understand why that is, I can explain fully, or I can refer you to the Behavior Intervention Team on our campus, which consists of a counselor, faculty member, and person from student affairs who are trained on talking to people about what's appropriate or what isn't.
At various points, MacDonald attempted to use philosophical reasoning to defend himself. When Browning noted that multiple people were offended by his comments, MacDonald accused her of succumbing to the logical fallacy of ad populum reasoning.
When MacDonald protests that he is on a public university campus—where the First Amendment is in effect—Browning states that "derogatory comments" could absolutely get him dismissed from the philosophy program. She asserts that his comment about Islam was "very objectionable," could prompt the Behavior Intervention Team to investigate, and could jeopardize his academic and professional future in a variety of ways. What's more, Browning repeatedly makes comment to the effect that this will not be tolerated, despite maintaining that MacDonald is not at risk of being removed from the program.
BROWNING: Those are things that would get you fired if you were working in my office. The Islam comment would get you fired.
MACDONALD: …Would it really get me fired to say that I could be killed somewhere?
BROWNING: In that situation as you've described it, absolutely yes.
BROWNING: Don't even ask. It's clear you're not taking my word for it. I don't care to convince you. If I can't persuade you that it's in your interest to behave in ways that other people don't find offensive and objectionable, then at least I've done my job.
MACDONALD: Well I know that it's in my interest. I'm just trying to understand the reasoning.
BROWNING: You don't have to.
MACDONALD: Well, this is a truth-seeking discipline!
This incident took place last year. I could not immediately reach MacDonald for contact, but The College Fix's William Nardi recently obtained an interview with him. Browning declined comment to The Fix. A university spokesperson, Joe Izbrand, clarified the Behavior Intervention Team's role:
"It's not about taking punitive action or determining penalties," Izbrand told The College Fix via email. "The behavioral intervention team is comprised of a broad array of professionals whose job is to review concerns that come to them and to appropriately determine if any kind of follow up is necessary—concerns about the wellbeing of a student, if the student has expressed a threat to another student or themselves."
"We do not and will not take disciplinary action for students exercising their freedom of speech rights," Izbrand said, "and we expect faculty to help guide students in how to appropriately express those views when interacting with each other."
It's certainly possible that MacDonald's behavior was more inappropriate and disruptive than this conversation reveals, or that his attendance issues should have precluded him from being a student at UT–San Antonio. But it should not strike the chair of the philosophy department as offensive and unthinkable to make accurate criticisms of Islamic extremism, or of any other religious ideology. To quote Harvard University's Steven Pinker (alongside whom I will be speaking at a panel discussion next week: details here), "That's the difference between a university and a madrassa."