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A presidential debate at ND – oh, the irony

| Thursday, January 16, 2020

Last year, it was announced that Notre Dame would be hosting a presidential debate next September.

In the announcement, University President Fr. John Jenkins addressed the importance of democratic discourse and informing voters through debate and dialogue.

“The heart of democracy is addressing significant questions in open, reasoned discussion that will inform voters as they prepare to cast their votes,” he said. 

There is a deeply rooted irony in Our Lady’s University hosting a presidential debate in the name of democratic discourse, instead of the more realistic, undercurrent desire for national recognition and prestige. Here’s why. 

We have a truly incredible history of inviting distinguished public servants, including the majority of American presidents of the modern-era to come speak on campus. We’ve hosted people with differing views and perspectives, many of them holding opinions which are antithetical to the teachings of the Catholic Church. 

Our open-speaker policy is an impressive tenant of free speech and recognition of the importance of a fair representation of all views. This perhaps couldn’t be clearer than honoring both former Speaker John Boehner and Vice-President Joe Biden with the 2016 Laetare Medals. In recognizing two individuals across the partisan divide, both influential Catholics, with the medal, Notre Dame signaled that both public servants hold equally valid perspectives and deserved not only the recognition of the medal, but a platform to speak from. 

Unfortunately, this recognition does not extend to the student body. While Notre Dame feels free to welcome both President George H.W. Bush and President Barack Obama, it does not feel comfortable in allowing students to freely express their views and opinions through on-campus activism, student organizations and extracurricular opportunities. 

I wholeheartedly believe that people form the soundest opinions when their viewpoints are regularly subjected to strict scrutiny. We engage in a challenging academic discourse on campus, but we have struggled as a student body to develop an active and sustained debate centering on political and policy issues. 

This is due in part to the hurdles imposed on student expression by the administration. The regulations constitute an undue burden on student free speech. While it might seem relatively easy to send an email to a specific individual asking to hold a demonstration on campus, this policy is deeply hidden within duLac regulations and student groups not recognized by the university are barred from many of the privileges associated with recognized demonstration. 

Until we recognize the rights of all students to engage in equally respected political discourse and debate, Notre Dame has no place in hosting a presidential debate. Why should our institution which is aimed at preparing these students for the future, privilege the democratic rights of every other American citizen, while tarnishing the rights of the very students who attend this University? 

Our campus currently falls far short of those lofty goals associated with democratic values that were laid out by Fr. Jenkins in the debate announcement. We may be capable of hosting a debate between President Donald Trump and the democratic nominee, but we are currently incapable of supporting students in promoting a political dialogue. 

We should be preparing our students to become active and engaged citizens once they embark on their career-driven lives. Clearly, many alumni and administrators would disagree with this claim. When students quietly walked out in the middle of Vice-President Mike Pence’s commencement address, they were meet with scathing criticism from alumni as well as some current students. Of course, little was said when the crowd actively booed President Obama. 

I would disagree with the criticisms the students who walked out received, but at the very least it caused our campus to engage in a discussion of what it means to participate in a democratic discourse, as well as the merits of having Vice President Pence deliver the address. I can only hope that hosting the presidential debate will generate a similar level of engagement on campus. 

However, I am certain that even if next September our campus becomes engulfed for a brief moment in an open political dialogue, the restrictions placed on student expression will stifle this engagement all too quickly. The burden is on us, as students, as well as the administration to ensure that when we graduate we are prepared to participate in American political culture in a meaningful way. And currently that’s not the case. 

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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