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Newly-formed free speech group strategizes against potential restrictions

Mike Gilloon | Thursday, January 26, 2006

Seeking to vigorously engage in University President Father John Jenkins’ invitation to converse on the issues of academic freedom and Notre Dame’s Catholic character, the newly-formed group “United for Free Speech” met Wednesday to organize committees and brainstorm ideas in response to Jenkins’ recent addresses to faculty and students.

Approximately 75 students and faculty filled couches, chairs and the floor of Welsh Family Hall’s social space to discuss the most effective ways to protest and prevent censorship of “The Vagina Monologues” and other controversial performances on campus.

“We want to show [Jenkins] that there is an extraordinarily large contingen[t] on this campus that support[s] the right to free speech, [is] concerned about constraints on academic freedom and will fight for this cause,” said senior Kaitlyn Redfield, who organized the meeting.

Redfield led the discussion that produced ideas such as circulating and delivering a petition in support of free speech to Jenkins. Attendees also considered encouraging the University to attach a disclaimer to any event it believes runs counter to Catholic principles, staging a visual demonstration and writing letters to alumni and other groups asking for donations and support.

Though nearly all seemed opposed to the censorship of “The Vagina Monologues,” the group did not agree on the best way to go about stating its case.

Some suggested aggressively accusing the University of infringing on their right to free speech.

“Shaming the University [about its decision], I think that’s the game,” senior Peter Quaranto said.

Still others believed working with Jenkins in a more cordial way would be the better route to follow.

Three professors, including English professor Glenn Hendler, observed the lively session but rarely broke in with their own thoughts.

“It was great to see that so many students, on such short notice, are so interested in working hard and thinking through this issue,” Hendler said. “I came partly to show support for the students and partly to hear what they had to say.”

Whether one approves or disapproves of “The Vagina Monologues,” Redfield said, the larger issues her group wants to protect are free speech and academic freedom on campus.

Representing groups such as the College Libertarians, the Progressive Student Alliance and the unrecognized gay-straight organization AllianceND, attendees spent more than 45 minutes discussing their opinions before breaking into committees in charge of fundraising, taking action, press releases, petitions and form letters.

Quaranto said he was concerned with what could happen if Jenkins decides to put an end to the current production style of “The Vagina Monologues” on campus.

“The direction of the University is troubling,” he said.

Other students echoed Quaranto’s concerns and believed “United for Free Speech” would be an effective outlet to make their opinions heard.

“I thought people had a lot of really good ideas,” senior Curtis Leighton said. “I feel like lately I’ve heard a lot of anger, antagonism and resentment. But I feel like people were giving some pretty constructive claims – like working with Father Jenkins and not just antagonizing him.”

Sophomore Alex Renfro, a member of the AllianceND, was cautiously hopeful at the end of the meeting.

“I just think we’re going to do everything we can and pray for the best,” Renfro said.

Regardless of how those in attendance believe they should approach the situation, Redfield was impressed with the interest generated on the issue.

“This is the biggest meeting I’ve seen in a long time on this campus,” she said.