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Dear Fr. Jenkins: Do I have the right to speak?

| Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The issue of free speech on college campuses is a complicated one that has brought the attention of the wider American discourse. Colleges have become the battleground for free speech issues, and the question of who really has the right to speak has surfaced.

However, at the same time, it’s actually pretty simple.

All students and community members’ voices matter.

All students and community members should have an equal opportunity to share their experiences, views and vision for the community.

All students and community members should be able to use their time at Notre Dame to advocate for causes they care about and pursue the path they choose.

Unfortunately, this is not the case at Notre Dame.

I went to Washington D.C. last spring. It was an absolutely wonderful experience, and I am so blessed that Notre Dame offered me that opportunity.

However, there was a major hurdle in my experience.

As I searched for internships, there were several places that stood out to me, two of them being Emily’s List and the Feminist Majority Foundation.

When I updated the program director on my internship search in the fall, I was told that, unfortunately, the University has made it clear that students are not allowed to intern at Emily’s List. When I inquired as to why, they explained that it wasn’t entirely clear.

This shocked and upset me.

So, I began to reach out to students who had done the program before, and was told that my problem was not unique. Another student who interned at the Feminist Majority Foundation was only allowed to intern there if they agreed to focus solely on education issues, and not do any work for the reproductive rights branch of the organization.

This is fundamentally wrong. My opportunities should not be restricted because of the official beliefs of the University I attend. When I signed the agreement to attend Notre Dame, I did not sign a statement agreeing to abide by every official position and belief.

Every student reserves the right to their own opinions, and to exercise advocacy on behalf of those opinions.

Does the University have a legal obligation to ensure that all students have an equal right to speak on campus? Of course not. Notre Dame is a private university and is under no legal obligation to ensure that right for students. But I do believe that they have a moral obligation.

Our campus vision is based on the five pillars of the Holy Cross: mind, heart, zeal, family, and hope.

Students using their voice to advocate for causes that they’re passionate about is a pivotal part of the mission of mind, heart and zeal.

My mind was violated, my heart corrupted and my zeal undermined when I was prevented from working where I desired and from promoting a mission I care about.

There are certain causes and voices on campus that are valued above others. It is obvious that certain groups receive greater face time with the administration than others. While this is an issue, there are even more students who are prevented from speaking in the first place.

The administration has taken direct action to prevent some students from using their voice for to further the causes they are passionate about.

For example, students have to register a protest or demonstration with SAO.

This fundamentally undermines students right to speak and demonstrate on campus, as they can rarely have a reactive demonstration.

With the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, several students and I organized a sticker handout and protest of his confirmation. This was clouded over by concerns that at any moment we could be told to disperse by NDSP.

This is our campus. We have a moral right to share and speak our views here.

What can we do to ensure that all students have the equal opportunity to share their views?

We can implement a free speech square on campus.

A square where Notre Dame community members can protest, demonstrate and spread their message in a respectful way.

This is not a square for outside groups or actors. It is for Notre Dame community members only.

Several Catholic universities already have a similar area on campus, such as the Red Square at Georgetown University.

Allowing for students, faculty and staff to share their opinions in a safe space does not go against the Catholic mission, no matter what their message may be. Rather, it is perfectly in line with a Catholic mission.

Saint John Paul II in “Ex Corde Ecclasiae” recognized the fine line between the individual and the official goals and positions of the Catholic college.

Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the university is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.

It is Notre Dame’s Catholic duty to take steps that affirm the freedom of conscience of each individual person on campus.

I believe the most important step in doing so would be to establish a free speech area on campus. At the very least, Notre Dame needs to be clear about these policies. If students aren’t allowed to work at explicitly pro-choice groups during an abroad experience, say so. The gray area is a way for this administration to block a student’s right to speech while avoiding accountability for those actions and policies.

In conclusion, I’d just like to ask: Fr. Jenkins, do I have a right to speak here?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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