The Center for Inquiry has put together two letters on the Webster Cook affair, one to be sent to UCF president John Hitt, and the other to the Catholic League. I’ve put both below the fold.
Dear John C. Hitt:
We are writing in response to the recent controversy surrounding University of Central Florida student Webster Cook. Countless people have publicly proclaimed that they are sending letters to your University demanding the expulsion of Webster Cook.
Let us quickly recap the events in question. Webster Cook went to a communion ceremony on campus, not at a Catholic Church, and was given a communion wafer by the celebrant of the ceremony. When Mr. Cook failed to engage in the prescribed ritual, some in the congregation demanded the wafer’s return; he refused to do so. Mr. Cook returned home, and as the incident gained exposure and threats were issued, he returned the wafer.
Even looking at Webster Cook’s actions in the worst possible light, they amount to nothing more than conduct that some would consider blasphemous. Blasphemy falls within the Constitutionally-guaranteed right of free speech.
We can understand that you are experiencing an onslaught of public pressure to punish Webster Cook and one can certainly argue that his behavior was insensitive. Yet this begs the question: what would the size of your student body be if you expelled all students who were insensitive? An enlightened university education reinforces the virtue of free speech’s role in a civil society. While offensive to a portion of the population, Mr. Cook’s actions were in no way illegal; however, if carried out, the threats of physical violence leveled against him are indeed illegal.
The Center for Inquiry, with which we are affiliated, values the highest ideals of the university in promoting critical thinking and freedom of inquiry. To expel Webster Cook for his actions would betray these principles.
Below are the signatures of many prominent Center for Inquiry campus affiliate group leaders and other supporters. We strongly encourage you to denounce the threats of violence against one of your undergraduates and sustain your support for freedom of speech on your campus.
To the Catholic League and affiliates,
In the United States there is a rich tradition of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, without fear of violent retribution. A good corporate citizen or non-profit organization could reasonably be expected to speak out against its own constituents when they threaten violence. You have a rare opportunity to demonstrate that you are a good corporate citizen.
In response to the recent controversy surrounding University of Central Florida student Webster Cook, many individuals have threatened Cook and his family with violence and death. These outrageous threats of terrorist behavior have been extended to zoologist and professor P.Z. Myers. We urge you to uphold your responsibility as a corporate citizen to condemn these malicious threats of violence and death.
We believe in mutual tolerance of beliefs as we all seek the truth. Violence is never appropriate over what is essentially an academic-theological question; such questions must be subject to calm, reasoned discourse.
Regrettably, many individuals have chosen to threaten to take a vigilante approach to this controversy in an entirely inappropriate and criminal manner, subjecting Webster Cook, P.Z. Myers, and their families to threats of violence. These actions are a blatant affront to our common human dignity. Threats of death and violence, beyond being inarguably dangerous, are an affront to the reputation of your faith tradition and your own organization. Whether or not the perpetrators of this shameful behavior are connected to your organization, it remains in your hands to maintain the civility and seriousness of the discourse.
The Center for Inquiry, with which we are affiliated, values the highest ideals of the university in promoting critical thinking and freedom of inquiry. Below are the signatures of many prominent Center for Inquiry campus affiliate group leaders and other supporters. We strongly encourage you to do the right thing and condemn the threats of violence.