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Some voices. One University approved conversation

| Monday, September 9, 2019

I was surprised by the content of our University’s ad that played Sept. 2 over the half-time break, “Many voices. One conversation.” Of course, it was a great ad and it made me very proud to be a Notre Dame student, especially considering the national audience who saw it, but it’s unfortunate that it is simply not true. 

The ad focuses on the diversity of dialogue present on our campus, specifically through an academic lens, highlighting the variety of perspectives that students examine through different texts. And this part is true — we do have incredible academics, supported by knowledgeable professors, who challenge our point of view with controversial authors and arguments. Unfortunately, this tolerance for a controversial academic dialogue does not transfer when it comes to our general campus community and the issue of free speech. 

Sure, we read the Communist Manifesto in class, but in order to speak our minds freely on this campus we have to operate through a variety of complex administration-oriented systems aimed at infringing on a student’s right to free speech. You want to organize a protest for abortion rights? Better go get it approved. You want to have a reactive demonstration to a racist speaker coming to campus? They have the right to speak, but you need to run your counter-demonstration by us first.

Don’t believe me? It’s in du Lac: 

“All demonstrations must be registered in writing with the vice president for campus safety and university operations and also must observe the following rules:

a. All demonstrations must be peaceful and orderly.

b. Only members of the University community may organize or lead a demonstration on campus.

c. Demonstrators may not impede the freedom of the University community.”

Registering a demonstration with Campus Safety is a reasonable request when it comes to mass demonstrations. However, it is unclear what qualifies as a demonstration versus the free speech of a few individuals on campus. Furthermore, while our campus, thankfully, has a great open speaker policy, which is key to fostering a fruitful environment for free speech on campus, we struggle when it comes to allowing open student speech and advocacy on campus. 

The University administration has taken it upon themselves to dictate the activities of student clubs and even the availability and acceptability of internship opportunities for students. There are multiple clubs on this campus, primarily advocating for social causes, who have had their activities infringed upon and advocacy limited by the University. 

PrismND is a vital part of our campus community, and it was a great step forward for the administration to allow their presence on campus. However, they are restricted from advocating for key measures which are of great importance to many members of the LGBTQ+ community. Notre Dame’s pastoral plan for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ students, Beloved Friends and Allies, laid out a more inclusive plan for LGBTQ+ members of our community, including the development of what would become PrismND. However, the University included clear restrictions: “And in all such programs and initiatives, due consideration is to be exercised so as to avoid any political or social activities that might compromise Notre Dame’s Roman Catholic allegiance and commitments.” A wonderful step forward in acceptance, but also a major limitation on the rights of students to speak freely. 

I wrote about this experience in a column last year, and it was eventually posted on a Facebook page where multiple alumni commented that they had similar experiences, but I was prevented from interning at a pro-choice organization while in the Notre Dame Washington D.C. program. The rule was never explicitly stated to me, but it was clear that students were not allowed to work at explicitly pro-choice organizations while in the program. It is unfortunate that the University has misconstrued the mission of a Catholic University in a way that limits the opportunities available to students on campus and abroad. 

This isn’t an attempt to bash the administration. There have been several key positive steps towards allowing a greater diversity of speech in our campus community even within the last year. For example, Notre Dame’s College Democrats sponsored a bus to take 38 students to D.C. last year to attend the third annual Women’s March. While not necessarily directly supported by the University, it is comforting to see that students were allowed, at least in some capacity, to advocate for their personal beliefs and organize within our University community. 

I’ve written about my experiences with free speech on Notre Dame’s campus, and this probably won’t be the last time I write about it either. Until we are able to guarantee a free and open space for all Notre Dame community members to speak, we will continue to fail to fulfill the Catholic mission of a productive dialogue. If we are going to allow Charles Murray or Vice President Mike Pence to come speak on our campus, two people with beliefs and missions that can be seen as antithetical to the message of Catholic Social Teaching, then we must allow for all students to have the opportunity to share their beliefs, ideas and complex perspectives within the bounds of a productive dialogue. 

Jackie O’Brien is a Notre Dame senior studying political science and peace studies, originally from the Chicago suburbs. When she’s not writing for Viewpoint, you can find her attempting to complete the NYT crossword, fretting over law school applications or watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. She can be reached at [email protected] or @im_jackie_o on Twitter.

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

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