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Libertarians mistaken

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 7, 2006

In their letter of Feb. 1 (“Protecting Freedoms), The College Libertarians of Notre Dame recognized that our University is a private institution, and therefore not bound by certain legal strictures concerning free speech for its students. Unfortunately, I do not think that they actually appreciate the difference that this distinction makes. I have three objections to their article.

First, I worked for FIRE this past summer and can shed some light on why it gave Notre Dame a Red Light. It is not for the reasons that the Libertarians would like you to assume. FIRE’s rating system can be violated in many different ways, and a quick look at their Web site shows that Notre Dame’s “problems” are not the result of our recent controversy. Indeed almost all of the policies that FIRE critiques focus on the vagueness of our harassment policies. The only other difficulties that FIRE deems problematic include regulations on student demonstrations and limitations on obscene, pornographic, sexually explicit or offensive material put on posters or sent through the University servers. Neither of these relate to our present controversy. The College Libertarians tried to suggest otherwise; don’t be fooled.

Second, as they point out, private, and especially religious, institutions like Notre Dame have long maintained the freedom to educate their students according to a certain moral code. FIRE recognizes this too: “if a private college wishes to place a particular set of moral, philosophical or religious teachings above a commitment to free expression, it has every right to do so.” Indeed, “Private colleges and universities should be held to the standard that they themselves establish.” So, let’s look at the promises that Notre Dame has made to us. In the Mission Statement, the University proclaims that it is dedicated to academic freedom. It says two things of interest: “As a Catholic university one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where through free inquiry and open discussion the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge.” As of now, the Vagina Monologues will still intersect with Catholic thought, just in a different forum.

The Mission Statement also proclaims that, “the University insists upon academic freedom which makes open discussion and inquiry possible.” This is the crux of the issue. What does academic freedom mean at Notre Dame? I would propose that what Father Jenkins is doing at this juncture is trying to find and elucidate exactly the answer to that question. And kindly, he has asked us to help. This leads to my third and final point: the Notre Dame Libertarians have laid out their moral argument as to what academic freedom should mean, and I for one am not convinced. They claim that “to limit the possibility of what a student may learn does discredit to the mission of education.” But this is not what is happening; Jenkins said that the school will not limit what a student may learn because faculty are free to teach classes that use the Vagina Monologues and students are allowed to take that class. The University’s focus is not on limiting what a student may learn, but on controlling its own speech so that future students, current students, alumni and the rest of the world know exactly what Notre Dame is saying. It has not only a legal right to do so, but as an institution of the Catholic Church, a moral duty. The Libertarians also claim that the students are the true reason this University exists. I’m not so sure I would completely agree. The Mission Statement says that the University is “dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” All faculty and students are invited to join the University in that search. As a Catholic institution however, the University believes that we already know some of that truth as it has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ, through the Church that he established and through the Bible that it, guided by the Holy Spirit, offered to the world. Included in that revelation is the meaning about human sexuality and femininity. The University is not only allowed, but has an obligation to ensure that the truth to which it is dedicated is not tainted by contrary understandings about the meaning and fulfillment of the human person. Our Lady gets to speak too and not have her words garbled by others.

Cody Groeberlaw studentFeb. 6