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viewpoint

The right to petition

| Thursday, September 17, 2015

The White House hosts a platform on its website called “We the People” that allows citizens to create and sign petitions. The idea behind the platform is simple but also a 21st century manifestation of one of the most fundamental rights of Americans.

“The right to petition your government is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” a description on the website reads. “‘We the People’ provides a new way to petition the Obama Administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country. We created ‘We the People’ because we want to hear from you. If a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts and issue an official response.”

The White House launched “We the People” in 2011, and according to statistics from July, a total of 19.5 million users had started more than 400,000 petitions, garnering nearly 28 million signatures. Petitions need 100,000 signatures to receive an official response, and as of July, the White House has responded to 275 petitions.

A cynic may dismiss “We the People” as a White House public relations ploy. A hopeless idealist may view it as a necessary and important part of living in a modern democracy.

We on the Observer editorial board fall somewhere between the cynical and overly idealistic extremes, but we feel the University administration should follow the Obama administration’s lead and institute a system by which students can petition the University to respond to issues students care about.

We propose that if 2,000 students — nearly a quarter of the undergraduate population — sign a petition to indicate they think an issue is important, the administration ought to release an official response.

One of our biggest frustrations as a student newspaper is when the University stays silent on important issues. But we know the frustration we feel extends beyond our newsroom.

Earlier this week, sidewalk chalk messages appeared throughout campus demanding the University divest from fossil fuel companies. This call for divestment is not a new one — the We Are 9 movement began in 2013 with the purpose of working toward a sustainable future, a key part of which is divesting from fossil fuel companies. But the closest to a full official response to divestment demands the administration has ever come was in February, when University President Fr. John Jenkins answered a question on the topic at a town hall meeting.

The divestment issue is just one recent example. Notre Dame students are intelligent, passionate women and men, and we care about the issues that will shape our world as our generation comes of age. We deserve, then, to thoughtfully and effectively engage on these issues with the generation currently in charge.

With a petition system in place, Notre Dame students could more widely and democratically communicate with the administration on issues like the Core Curriculum Review, the Campus Crossroads project and sexual assault.

A system like this would undoubtedly lead to some ridiculous proposals from students — in 2012, a “We the People” petition demanding the U.S. government build a Death Star garnered enough support to warrant an official response. But a system like this would lead to much more good than bad. Another “We the People” petition, asking that the practice of “unlocking” cell phones be made legal, eventually led to the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which put into law the petition’s demand.

We envision a system open to students only, perhaps run through the new student government online forum, “Onward.” Fr. Jenkins and his office would be welcome and encouraged to respond to any petition that receives 2,000 signatures, but depending on the issue, the president’s office could defer to another member of the President’s Leadership Council for an official response. For example, if a petition demanding theology remain a core curriculum requirement gathered enough support, Fr. Jenkins could defer to University Provost Thomas G. Burish to issue an official response.

We know students might not always agree with the administration’s official response, but the fact that the administration would respond at all is beneficial for students and the administration — it would allow students to get answers on issues they deem important, and it would allow the administration to clearly articulate its position on those issues, opening up a necessary channel of communication for the University.

We recognize this proposal — which began as a simple newsroom discussion — is unlikely to become a reality, but it’s an idea that would help foster open dialogue between students and the administration.

We recognize, too, Notre Dame is not a democracy, but we argue that whenever possible, it ought to try to practice the democratic principles that have guided our country for 239 years. We do not feel this is asking for too much. Rather, we believe an engaged and impassioned student body deserves an equally responsive and genuine administration, always willing to interact with as many students as possible and do what is best for us all.

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  • Okay, quick thoughts:

    1.) “One of our biggest frustrations as a student newspaper is when the University stays silent on important issues. But we know the frustration we feel extends beyond our newsroom.”

    Then when in the process of writing a NEWS story, if the “elected” president of the University is asked to comment, or some other high ranking commissar in some other office – Investment, Provost, Financial Aid, General Council, University Relations, Housing, a Dean, etc. – declines to comment, then a simple, stand-alone, one sentence paragraph should be added to the story, worded like this:

    XXXXXXXXXXX, {title}, {office}, when contacted by “The Observer” for a comment/interview, was unavailable/did not respond to the request.

    The onus is on those who are asked to comment but don’t to explain why they didn’t, not “The Observer” or any of its reporters. The silence, then, also becomes part of the story, if not THE story, not something immediately dismissed.

    Which leads to a second comment;

    2.) “We recognize this proposal — which began as a simple newsroom discussion — is unlikely to become a reality, but it’s an idea that would help foster open dialogue between students and the administration.

    “We recognize, too, Notre Dame is not a democracy, but we argue that whenever possible, it ought to try to practice the democratic principles that have guided our country for 239 years. We do not feel this is asking for too much. Rather, we believe an engaged and impassioned student body deserves an equally responsive and genuine administration, always willing to interact with as many students as possible and do what is best for us all.”

    These paragraphs are not needed. Furthermore, they undermine your proposal. Why? How? Essentially you’re admitting your own ineffectiveness, so why would the intended audience for this editorial, the “Administration”, even consider the idea if “it”/”they” know upfront you’re not committed to it and know it will fail? Why negotiate away the one chip you have, public accountability {and guilt and shame}, before any negotiations even begin? Why give the “Administration” an out, why speak for “it”/”them”, before “it”/”they” speak?

    3.) Lastly, “We envision a system open to students only, perhaps run through the new student government online forum, “Onward”.”

    What’s the hindrance to creating something like this anyway? If it’s a question of not being “allowed” to use “University computer space”, who cares. There are lots of free platforms that would be perfect for this. Even if it were “allowed” to be on “University computer space”, set something up separate from “Onward”.

    In either case, I’ll give you a name and a tagline for it – UpfrontND. Asking the UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME to be UPFRONT with its main constituency, STUDENTS.

    Keep asking questions, people. Remember, as journalists, “no comment” oftentimes masks the REAL story.