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Campus groups petition for academic freedom

Maddie Hanna | Friday, February 10, 2006

Members of United for Free Speech and AllianceND took their campaign for academic freedom to the next level Thursday – the first day of “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives and Spectatorship” – by staging two larger-scale events to collect petition signatures and heighten awareness of their cause.

The petitions, addressed to University President Father John Jenkins in support of academic freedom, were presented to students heading to 9:30 a.m. classes in DeBartolo Hall and spectators entering the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on the opening night of the third annual event formerly known as the Queer Film Festival.

“The freedom to read, study, perform, write and speak on issues of controversy, insofar as such action is carried out peacefully and without libel, is a crucial component to the intellectual and spiritual mission of the University of Notre Dame,” reads the petition to Jenkins. “We most strongly encourage you to respect freedom of speech by allowing pursuits such as ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and the Queer Film Festival to be performed in an unrestricted fashion.”

Senior Kaitlyn Redfield, one of the leaders of United for Free Speech and an organizer of the “Monologues,” said the group has been circulating petitions for two weeks, starting immediately after Jenkins delivered his address to students on academic freedom and Catholic character.

They have close to 2,000 signatures now but want to collect “several thousand” before presenting the petitions to Jenkins during the middle of next week, Redfield said.

“I think students are beginning to realize just how critical unrestricted academic freedom is to the mission of this Catholic university,” Redfield said “We can sustain our academic reputation and our Catholic character only by critically engaging every intellectual, spiritual and ideological viewpoint of the Notre Dame family. Intolerance is not a Catholic value.”

Anna Gomberg, a third-year graduate student and co-coordinator of the unrecognized gay/straight student group AllianceND, said her group had come together with United for Free Speech in support of the Gay and Lesbian Film series – a unity that is “absolutely” essential to furthering their cause.

“I am really, really inspired by the way United for Free Speech and everybody around us has pulled together, made this a real conversation,” Gomberg said. “We think that it’s a pretty visible [sign] of all of us being in one place on the first day of the Gay and Lesbian Film [series].”

She said the event’s name change – an agreement reached between the University, the Film, Television and Theatre department and student organizers – was a sign of the relevancy of the film series and that many students would be “outraged” if the showings were banned from campus.

“I think that it would be quite the blow to academic freedom,” Gomberg said. “I think it would be taking the University away from being an academic institution and it would bring it more into the realm of the Church.

“We are hoping the petition will show the administration just how committed the students are to academic freedom.”

The majority of people entering the Performing Arts Center Thursday night stopped to sign the academic freedom petition.

Curtis Leighton, a senior collecting signatures at the Center, said awareness was an important goal of the night’s campaign.

“The Queer Film Festival is really a huge part of this academic freedom [discussion], and it is important that we are here,” Leighton said.

Students on their way to class Thursday morning were handed a copy of the Open Speaker Policy outlined in duLac, a statement that United for Free Speech members believe fully supports the presence of controversial events like ‘The Vagina Monologues’ on campus.

“Notre Dame students may invite and hear any person of their own choosing,” duLac reads. “Sponsorship of guest speakers does not imply approval or endorsement of the views expressed, either by the sponsorship group or the University.”

United for Free Speech believes there is nothing in duLac to suggest students are not considered “open speakers” under University policy.

“Until duLac changes, no one should have the right to define students’ rights to academic freedom of every sort on campus,” the group’s statement reads.

The majority of students took the handout and kept it. Some paused to sign the group’s petition – Redfield estimated between 300 and 400 signatures were collected this morning – while others, rushed or uninterested, ignored the requests.

Freshman Michael Spencer, who stopped to sign the petition, said he better understood the issue after writing a First Year Composition paper on Jenkins’ recent addresses.

“The main issue comes down to respect, respect of Father Jenkins and for the Catholic views of the University,” Spencer said.

He said he didn’t think controversial events like ‘The Vagina Monologues’ should be banned, because students have a “right to see” them.

“But I think there should be compromise,” Spencer said. “Notre Dame is, after all, a Catholic university.”

Other students passing by were less knowledgeable on the academic freedom debate.

After being handed the Open Speaker Policy, sophomore Jake O’Neill said he “didn’t know much about it.”

“I’m for [academic freedom], I guess,” O’Neill said. “I don’t know really, though.”

Sophomore Kristy Schlueter said she needed to do more research on the discussion before committing herself to one side or another.

“I’m all for free speech, but I don’t really know exactly what I’m signing, so I kind of want to figure … out where I stand on the whole thing,” Schlueter said.

A transfer student from the University of Arizona, junior Ben Fredlake said he didn’t have all the background on the controversy on campus.

“[But] I don’t really have a problem with what Father Jenkins said,” he said.

Other students stressed the magnitude of the issue and firmly articulated their stance.

“The fact that Father Jenkins is even letting us comment like this, I think, is really important, and it’s important that both sides are presented,” senior Stefanie Dittert said. “I think we’ve seen a lot of the other side, like ‘Oh, I agree with Father Jenkins’ … like stop. I’m in ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ I think it’s really important that they go on.

“I think these are issues that everyone at a Catholic university needs to be aware of, and there needs to be open debate on both sides.”

And it seems debate will continue to escalate, Redfield said. She has been contacted by numerous national and international news organizations – including the New York Times, National Public Radio and the Associated Press – and hasn’t seen any decrease in activity among students.

“This is not an issue that will die easily,” she said.

Heather Van Hoegarden and Megan O’Neil contributed to this report.