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Notre Dame Students Embrace Opportunity for Dialogue in Coulter Visit

By April 11, 2014

The University of Notre Dame’s College Republicans student group invited conservative commentator Ann Coulter to speak to students Thursday night, and Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College student newspaper The Observer relayed refreshingly pro-free-speech remarks from students about the event. Even students who strongly disagreed with Coulter’s viewpoints recognized not just the College Republicans’ right to invite her but also the benefits that can come with controversial speakers like Coulter.

College Republicans President Mark Gianfalla told The Observer that he believed Coulter’s perspective would provide more diversity of opinion on an increasingly liberal campus. Others criticized Coulter as being offensive and hateful. Rather than call for her disinvitation, though, or shout her down, as students opposing controversial speakers in the past have done, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) of Notre Dame held a silent demonstration outside. The student group’s president, Niciah Petrovic said:

“It’s in no way a protest and in no way are we opposed to her coming here and speaking,” she said. “We actually think this is a great opportunity to engage in dialogue about this type of speech, how it affects us, what the motivations are … and what we can learn from it.”

“I’m really thankful that she’s coming, honestly,” Petrovic said. “I’m thankful for the free speaker policy because this gives us the opportunity to engage ideas which may sound controversial.

“This is a university. We’re supposed to be engaged in this kind of intellectual dialogue all the time. This is a great opportunity for us to do that.”

This is precisely the right approach. During its non-disruptive demonstration, the NAACP of Notre Dame handed out flyers to counter some of the claims made by Coulter—demonstrating how the “marketplace of ideas” is supposed to function.

Tyler Bowen, Vice President of Notre Dame’s College Democrats, said that he too “vehemently disagree[d] with [Coulter’s] views,” but that he was “uncomfortable” with the idea of censoring her. Indeed, censorship should make all students uncomfortable, since there is no way of telling what viewpoint might be censored next.

Shaaya Ellis, a member of the College Republicans, observed a common phenomenon in the debate over the boundaries of free speech:

“Everyone likes free speech until you use free speech,” he said. “Free speech isn’t created to talk about how beautiful the sun is, it’s created to talk about controversial issues that some people don’t agree with. … Free speech is giving people who aren’t going to agree with you the platform to speak.”

Thankfully, many students at Notre Dame appreciate that principle. Several students wrote letters to the editor of The Observer to further encourage open debate. Sophomore Ashley Murphy wrote:

Instead of demeaning the views of those with whom you disagree, take the time to understand why they hold their beliefs and why they choose to make their decisions. You may still disagree with them, but at least you will have a better understanding of the issue you are debating and a greater respect for your opponent.

Is that not the essence of our University’s ideals: to foster intellectual conversation on how to solve injustices in our society, all while growing to understand viewpoints that differ from our own?

FIRE applauds these students for embracing the opportunity for meaningful dialogue and reaffirming the rights of all students to express themselves freely.

Read more about the event and the discussion surrounding it in The Observer.

Schools: University of Notre Dame