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ND group aims for free speech

Adrienna Ruffner | Monday, February 6, 2006

Notre Dame students concerned about academic freedom and artistic expression plan to take action and make their voices heard through a new coalition called United for Free Speech.

United for Free Speech is a group of students whose stated aim is to promote dialogue about the recent campus controversies surrounding “The Vagina Monologues” and Queer Film Festival. The group formed as a response to University President Father John Jenkins’ speeches to faculty and students Jan. 23 and 24, which questioned – among other things – the events’ appropriateness in light of the University’s Catholic character.

The organizers of United for Free Speech said they worry potential University policies stemming from the addresses will limit students’ ability to express themselves.

“The group, United for Free Speech, will advocate and work for a University environment that protects academic freedom and respects diversity,” said a press release issued by the group this week. “The first step toward that objective is to ensure that the University does not censor student productions that address issues of controversy.”

The press release also said as a University, Notre Dame has an obligation to allow students to examine sensitive issues from many different perspectives, and should not censor the events.

As part of a campaign to advance its mission, United for Free Speech began circulating petitions to faculty and students last week. The group plans to hand-deliver the signed petitions to Jenkins.

“We’re trying really hard to engage in a dialogue about these issues,” United for Free Speech spokesperson senior Kaitlyn Redfield said. “We want to share with [Jenkins] our experiences and tell him why this is important.”

In addition to signing the petitions, the group urges Notre Dame students to write letters and e-mails to Jenkins to express their ideas and concerns. Both the petition and a form letter can be found on United for Free Speech’s Web site.

“I just really want to emphasize that we want to discuss and promote and understand every student’s expression of their experiences,” Redfield said.

Redfield said approximately 120 students are involved in United for Free Speech, based on the numbers from the group’s e-mail Listserv. Many of these students attended the group’s first meetings Jan. 25 and 29.

Administrators and students who criticize “The Vagina Monologues” and similar events have said they do so because the productions present sexuality in ways contrary to Catholic teaching.

“I respect their viewpoints, but I would say that is too limited an understanding of Catholicism,” Redfield said. “We think there is a misunderstanding and we hope to expand that view so more students could feel welcomed into Catholicism. If Notre Dame is going to be a family, it needs to accept all of its members.”