Ultraconservative Polish Catholics have drafted what is being called a “discipline and punish” law to rein in “liberal, leftist” universities.

Ultra-Catholic Ordo Iuris takes credit for controversial amendments to higher education law

The Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, a foundation of ultra-conservative Polish Catholics dedicated to combatting what they call the “various radical ideologies that aggressively question the existing social order”, is taking credit for new amendments to Poland’s 2018 higher education law proposed by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Łukasz Bernaciński, a member of Ordo Iuris and a PhD student in law at the University of Łódź, told the Times Higher Education supplement February 13 that the Institute had published a report in January outlining “violations” of free speech in Polish universities in recent years.

Ordo Iuris, Bernaciński said, “drafted a bill” on the basis of that report that it presented to Jarosław Gowin, a former university rector and now Minister of Science and Higher Education as well as Deputy Prime Minister.

“The project met with great interest, so the ministry decided to start work on changing the law… Currently, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education has drafted a bill that is based on the draft submitted by Ordo Iuris Institute”, Bernaciński explained.

Inspired by an “anti-choice, homophobic, radical Catholic” professor backed by the Church

What precisely are the kinds of “violations” of free speech Ordo Iuris has supposedly uncovered in Polish universities, and how does it propose to prevent them in the future?

Bernaciński said one case in particular had “a direct impact” on Ordo Iuris’ decision to get involved in the issue: the case of a professor of sociology at the University of Silesia, Ewa Budzyńska, who was accused in January by twelve students of “imposing” on her class “anti-choice ideology, homophobic views, antisemitism, information incompatible with modern scientific knowledge, and radical Catholic views”.

An internal university investigation found that Budzyńska had shown “a lack of tolerance towards social groups and people with a different worldview, characterised by homophobic statements, religious discrimination, and criticism towards the life choices of women who terminate pregnancies”, even if it did clear the professor of the allegation of antisemitism.

Before disciplinary measures could be taken against Budzyńska, the academic quit her post “as a gesture of protest”, saying that “the censorship of classes cannot [be allowed to] return”.

Not only did the Catholic-inspired Ordo Iuris itself immediately spring to Budzyńska’s defence – offering her legal advice – but other Polish Catholics such as the Archbishop of Katowice, Wiktor Skworc, as well as the Polish branch of Catholic Action, both called on Gowin, the minister responsible for universities, to intervene in Budzyńska’s case.

Although the University of Silesia recommended disciplinary action against Budzyńska, speaking to the THE Bernaciński said that the sociology professor’s students had merely been “outraged at the Christian concept of the family, taught based on scientific foundations and research”.

“This means that there has been a dangerous precedent that may prohibit universities from presenting research on specific phenomena and prevent academic debate on these topics”, Bernaciński warned.

Chilling effect, says academic: New free speech “disciplinary judges” would create more “stress” for professors

To stop that “dangerous precedent” of Budzyńska’s case in its track, Ordo Iuris, and now the PiS government, proposed clauses to protect “freedom of speech” in universities and to introduce new committees in institutions of higher learning to rule on supposed breaches.

The new university committees on free speech “would issue non-binding recommendations to university authorities”, Ordo Iuris’ Bernaciński explained.

But also speaking to the THE, Jarosław Płuciennik, a professor of the humanities, cultural studies and religion and former pro vice-chancellor for education at the University of Łódź, said free speech committees and their members would be “like disciplinary judges who will introduce a lot of stress on academics, who will be afraid of dealing with many issues because they will be afraid of losing their jobs”.

“It’s a philosophy which can be described in two words: discipline and punish”, Płuciennik warned.

Describing Ordo Iuris as “very radical” Polish Catholics and “very proud of influencing people in Poland”, the professor said he feared the new “free speech” proposals were a way of providing a university platform for extremist Catholics who campaign for total bans on abortion, and for climate change deniers.

Spokesman walks back involvement of Ordo Iuris

A ministry spokesman confirmed to the THE that the proposed amendments to the higher education law “address[] many situations that indicate the need for intervention to protect academic freedom, including freedom of expression when teaching, research or a debate open to various scientific arguments is at risk”.

That spokesman denied that Ordo Iuris participated “in the preparation of the project”, but admitted that the Institute was “one of many organisations and institutions…invited to participate during the open public consultation phase”.

Having said that, the spokesman said the ministry was “fully aware” of the concerns of academics opposed to the new free speech law amendments.

He added that “the representative bodies of the Polish academic community are actively involved in a dialogue with the ministry; we [are] all working constructively towards formulating an optimal legal framework”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.