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Protecting freedoms

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, February 3, 2006

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is an independent organization dedicated to preserving free speech on the campuses of America’s institutions of higher learning. FIRE analyzes the speech codes of many American universities and rates them on a scale of “green,” “yellow” or “red,” indicating the extent to which student expression is censored or controlled on campus. According the FIRE’s Web site, Notre Dame is rated “red” – indicating that Notre Dame has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech” of its students.

However, Notre Dame is a private institution. It is not bound by any legal responsibility to respect the right to free speech of its students. For all intents and purposes, we, the students of Notre Dame, have no “right” to free expression. The situation the administration faces is perilous; the decisions to be made will not be easy, and we can at least respect the difficulty inherent in these circumstances.

The students are, however, the true reason this University exists. We are not merely consumers; indeed, we pay tuition in exchange for a product, but there is a deeper connection implied in being a Notre Dame student. We are a family.

Father John Jenkins has shown himself to be a man of principle, and the students of Notre Dame should be thankful that he has brought the Queer Film Festival and the “Vagina Monologues” out of the Viewpoint section of The Observer. Consideration of the issues these events address is now in the forefront. He has stated that he will listen, and we believe him.

Jenkins and the University administration must recognize that a rating of “red” from FIRE is unacceptable. As students, we all have a significant stake in the product this University offers. To limit the possibility of what a Notre Dame student may learn does discredit to the mission of education, and the perception that Notre Dame “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech” cheapens the education for which we all have labored – and paid – so extensively. Our hard work and commitment to our own education should be rewarded with respect for the educational rigor and integrity that the Notre Dame name represents. Whether we are Catholic or atheist, conservative or libertarian, gay or straight, we have all come here to learn, and grow, but also help the University grow.

Therefore, we respectfully ask Jenkins, the faculty, the staff and all students of Our Lady to strive for something more. Restricting or censoring student expression is not a step towards growth, and will only lead towards further loss of student freedom. Preserving the University’s Catholic tradition is not incompatible with allowing free expression; indeed, to quote the University’s mission statement: “[T]he University insists upon academic freedom which makes open discussion and inquiry possible. Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community presupposes that no genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith. The University welcomes all areas of scholarly activity as consonant with its mission, subject to appropriate critical refinement.”

Protecting the freedoms that are integral to the mission of all education, Catholic or secular, should be paramount for the administration and for all members of this University. As Thomas Paine wrote: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” We must guard the freedoms of our fellow students. We cannot let voices be silenced, and we must stand together.

College Libertarians of Notre Dame

Feb. 1