Condemn University President’s Attack on Free Speech

CMU

Target: Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon

Goal: University president should not punish students for graphic protest against sex abuse.

At Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) annual Downhill Derby celebration, a female art student led a controversial performance designed to provoke discussion of the ongoing sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Dressed as the Pope, the student in question was nude from the waist down, explicitly evoking powerful imagery of sexual abuse by the clergy. CMU’s President, Jared Cohon, fired off a University-wide email condemning the act as “highly offensive,” indicating that punitive “disciplinary action” may be forthcoming. President Cohon must realize, as leader of one of the nation’s preeminent arts universities, that even provocative student expression must be respected, and the attempts of the Pittsburgh Diocese to censor critical speech must be prevented.

President Cohon’s email has garnered sharp criticism from within the CMU community. Daniel Lamorte, an employee and artist at the University, posted an especially thoughtful open letter to the President and the University community last week. In the letter, Lamorte decried Cohon’s email as both a violation of “the implicit trust between the university” and its creative minds, as well as an inherently misogynist reaction to the nude female form. Professor Clark Glymour, a Philosophy professor at the University, also in an open letter posted to Facebook, referred to Cohon’s email as a “palpably political document,” and one that leaves an “unspecified process” of potential discipline against the student. Student protests at the University last week have yet to elicit an apology or clarification of Cohon’s worrisome remarks.

The powerful role of the Pittsburgh Diocese presents a secondary problem for President Cohon. The Diocese’s statements on the Downhill Derby performance, broadcast via KDKA-TV, called the graphic criticism of the Church’s intransigence in the sex abuse scandal “offensive,” “an insult to other religious denominations,” and “an insult to… [all] American citizens,” rather than a clarion call for Church leaders to meaningfully address pervasive, ongoing sexual abuse of children.

President Cohon must be challenged on this issue, and he must step forward to protect free expression at Carnegie Mellon University. By signing this petition you will send Cohon a powerful message, urging him to renounce his defamatory statement, to definitively act to protect student speech, and to stand against all censorship efforts on American college campuses.

PETITION LETTER

Dear Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon & CMU Board of Trustees,

Recent statements by University leaders, particularly President Cohon, set a dangerous precedent concerning open student expression. In defining one student’s Downhill Derby performance “highly offensive” and potentially worthy of disciplinary action, the University is not only censoring a timely debate on abuses within the Catholic Church–it is undermining the mission of the liberal arts education.

Colleges and universities have an inherent responsibility to protect, promote, and assist students’ rights and abilities to express themselves, including–and especially–when concerning controversial social and political issues. I am urging you to uphold academia’s longstanding tradition of lively, engaging discourse on critical problems by retracting condemnatory statements regarding the Downhill Derby performance, publicly and unreservedly reaffirming the importance of open expression on campus, and apologizing to the student performer without additional punitive disciplinary action.

As leaders of one of America’s preeminent universities it is incumbent upon you to protect all students’ inherent rights to express themselves, especially on controversial issues, without retribution, while ensuring that academia remains untouched by powerful outside influences.

Sincerely,

[Your Name Here]

Photo Credit: Daderot via Wikimedia

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157 Signatures

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