When the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter at the Catholic University of America (CUA) debated the participation of transgender athletes in women's sports, sophomore Rory O'Connor leaned into the conversation by posting a barrage of critical memes on social media.
To his surprise, the satirical posts prompted the university to investigate him for "disorderly conduct."
It all started on March 23 when the school's YAF chapter posted an image of controversial transgender swimmer Lia Thomas to its Instagram account. The caption read, "Change my mind: Save women's sports," inviting critics to stop by the Pryzbyla University Center to debate the issue.
O'Connor only became aware of the event after it had ended, so the next day he took to his Instagram story to passionately express his disagreement with YAF. He launched into a self-described "cyberbullying" campaign against the club consisting of 19 Instagram stories, most of which were popular memes he edited to respond to perceived transphobia on the part of YAF.
In one post, which would eventually become the focal point of the controversy, O'Connor posted a viral meme from the children's cartoon Arthur which depicts a character holding a baseball bat. He edited the original caption to read "My terms to stop cyber billing [sic] the shit out of @catholicuyaf are simple: Do you wanna keep your post or do you wanna keep your kneecaps?"
In another, he made his opinion on transgender athletes clear: "If you preach love for *all* of God's children, you better mean all of them—trans and LGBTQ+ people included. And don't bother anyone with the pseudo-righteous indignation over some memes, for fuck's sake. Try to give a shit about the lives and experiences of trans people who are hated for nothing but expressing themselves and living in the truth."
"My intention in making the posts was to criticize and satirize the Catholic U YAF for, what I believe at least, was a blatantly exclusionary and disrespectful event," O'Connor tells Reason. "I meant this in good humor." But not everyone saw it as a joke.
Representatives from the YAF chapter filed a complaint to the university, writing to administrators about "a variety of Instagram stories all tagging @catholicuyaf, each of which are misrepresentative of our views, our tabling, and us as individuals." The complaint alleged harassment, asserting, "A Catholic University student should never threaten, harass, or bully other people including other CUA students."
In response, the university launched an investigation into O'Connor. In a March 29 letter, administrators notified him of charges of violating the student code of conduct and engaging in "disorderly conduct" due to allegations that he "threatened representatives of Young Americans for Freedom with bodily harm via [his] Instagram post." He was then summoned to a student conduct conference—potentially facing suspension or expulsion, according to school policy.
That's when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) stepped in.
Sabrina Conza, program officer of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, wrote to Catholic University on April 1, demanding the termination of the investigation. Conza argues that while the Instagram stories were potentially offensive to members and allies of YAF, they are clearly satirical in nature and therefore constitute protected speech.
According to Conza, the memes do not rise to the level of a genuine threat, and, therefore, punishment would violate the university's guarantee of free speech for students—not to mention its "no cancellation" policy. Although Catholic University is a private institution and therefore not bound by the First Amendment, its institutional commitment to protecting open expression means it is contractually obligated to uphold promises made to students. Furthermore, the letter argues the investigation would run the risk of chilling speech around contentious issues on campus.
"O'Connor's post uses a well-known meme to criticize YAF's views on transgender athletes, a topic on which YAF specifically called on students to engage," Conza tells Reason. "Now that we've let the university in on the joke, it must immediately end its investigation and reaffirm its commitment to free speech."
Catholic University did not respond to a request for comment, but it appears FIRE's pressure paid off.
At a hearing on Monday, O'Connor was deemed not responsible for the alleged disorderly conduct after YAF members acknowledged that they did not feel physically threatened by the posts. In the end, the Office of Student Conduct & Ethical Development acknowledged O'Connor's intent was satirical and not genuinely menacing.
O'Connor says he feels "vindicated" by the result. "I'm grateful for the immense help of FIRE," he says. "This could have ended a lot differently."
Ultimately, no matter who you side with on the issue of transgender athletes and regardless of whether YAF members were right to be offended, the onus is on administrators to respond appropriately and proportionately. After some pressure from FIRE, Catholic University came out on the side of free speech.