Equality Utah calls for ‘freedom of expression’ amid controversy over LDS apostle’s planned SUU speech

Leaders of the LGBTQ civil rights organization said SUU students and faculty should “not deploy the same tactics that have been used to silence and intimidate our community.”

Though Equality Utah “disagreed vehemently” two years ago with Latter Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland’s metaphorical call to arms for fellow congregants to defend heterosexual marriage, leaders of the LGBTQ civil rights organization issued a statement this week saying they don’t wish to silence Southern Utah University’s chosen commencement speaker.

Holland’s 2021 remarks were “disheartening and painful to hear,” the statement read, but Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams and policy director Marina Lowe added that “we also understand that the principles of freedom of expression, which are the hallmark of a free and pluralistic society, mean that even those with whom we disagree are entitled to express themselves, especially in an academic setting.”

Their statement contrasts with an online petition that demands that the university rescind Holland’s invitation. More than 17,000 had signed the petition as of Thursday, which marked a week since the university announced Holland would speak at its April commencement ceremony.

In an August 2021 talk at Brigham Young University, Holland told faculty and staff to take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its “doctrine of the family and … marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” He also criticized BYU’s 2019 valedictorian, who declared himself a “gay son of God” during his graduation speech.

[Read more: ‘We must have the will to stand alone’ — Read or watch LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk at BYU]

Williams and Lowe wrote that they believe in extending Holland the same freedom of expression principles that “allow us to live and speak freely” and urged those who disagree with Holland to use their speech to demonstrate why his remarks were harmful to the LGBTQ community.

“This is an opportunity to hold his words up to sunlight,” they wrote. “But let’s not deploy the same tactics that have been used to silence and intimidate our community”

Many students, alumni and those outside the campus community have opposed Holland’s planned speech, stating on social media and in letters to campus leaders that having Holland speak was akin to the university’s endorsement of his views, and that it made members of that LGBTQ community feel unsafe and unwelcome.

The Iron County Democratic Party issued a statement saying that they support those protesting Holland and hoped the school would replace him.

About 100 people spoke at a listening session the university held Monday to hear student and faculty concerns, according to St. George News.

One student, who the news organization identified as Gabby, spoke on the “clear correlation” between hateful rhetoric and violence, saying she had been raped by someone who was trying make her heterosexual.

“Allowing someone who called for the metaphorical eradication of the queer community to speak at such an honorable event is a disgusting decision and a slap in the face to any queer senior who has spent countless hours of time and money at this institution,” she said.

Laurel Buxton, who graduated from SUU a year ago and gave a commencement speech, said having Holland speak made her feel “helpless, confused and shocked,” according to St. George News. She came out as queer for the first time publicly in front of that audience and demonstrated the fears of the LGBTQ community by saying, “In doing so, I am running the risk of losing that relationship with my family.”

Graduating senior Nathan Bracken said Holland was “defending religious values” during his 2021 speech, and said that “canceling a speaker over their religious beliefs sends a message that religion is not welcomed in SUU, a university which prides itself in diversity and tolerance,” St. George News reported.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s son, Kaleb, also spoke at the event, admitting that he hadn’t always been supportive of the LGBTQ community but is now.

“Mr. Holland is part of an incredibly powerful, wealthy and influential religious institution, while the queer students at this university are just students — students who need to be heard, loved and, most importantly, allowed to feel safe and radically affirmed,” Kaleb Cox said, according to St. George News. “Regardless of what the governor says or does, please know that there’s a Cox here at SUU who will try and help you to do those things.”

University President Mindy Benson said she hoped the listening sessions would allow community members to “listen empathically and compassionately” and remind them of “our common love for this place, and that we can have an open and heartfelt safe exchange of thoughts and feelings and do so with kindness, civility and respect,” the St. George News reported.

Before the listening sessions, Benson previously said that she was “delighted” Holland had agreed to speak and thought his address “will offer inspiration to our graduates to embrace lifelong learning and give back to their communities as they leave SUU and continue to build their lives.”

The university on Thursday evening issued a new statement that said Benson and SUU’s board of trustees “are reviewing all the feedback the institution has received regarding the commencement speaker.”

“We appreciate all of those who’ve taken the time to make their voices heard,” the statement read. “It’s been a heartful exchange of thoughts done with respect, civility and kindness.”

As of Thursday, the university had made no public announcement about whether or not Holland will remain the ceremony’s keynote speaker. The university’s statement said additional meetings are taking place with faculty, staff, student and alumni leadership “before any decisions are made.”