Protect campus freedoms: CMU should retract charges and support free expression

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The academic, social and legal repercussions arising from two student performances during the 4th Annual Downhill Derby on the Carnegie Mellon University campus are most disconcerting. After complaints concerning nudity and criticism of the Catholic Church (most notably from Bishop David A. Zubik), campus police filed charges of indecent exposure against two young artists. The issues raised here are crucial to all universities and to the greater public.

Downhill Derby, known for its tenor of satire and even saturnalia, is the School of Art's version of Mardi Gras, a time and space where normal inhibitions and strictures are relaxed and, yes, even ignored. The spirit and sheer joy of the event has been something to celebrate, not condemn.

Within its playfulness, some serious points are made. Katherine B. O'Connor's was one of them. Her papal costume and performance, while partially nude, critiqued Pope Benedict XVI and the church's mishandling of its plague of pedophilia. Robb Godshaw's spontaneous disrobing was as improvisational as any modern dance -- not intended as protest but clearly within the realm of artistic expression.

Those who were there can attest to hearing the mistress of ceremonies, bullhorn in hand, issuing humorous cautions and clearly saying "children cover your eyes" in advance of the performance that was so publicly castigated by the bishop and the Catholic League.

Naked bodies, and frontal nudity in particular, have been omnipresent throughout art history and across cultures and time, from the Venus of Willendorf to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Art students work from live models in time-honored tradition and with an eye toward contemporary relevance. Nudity within a performance at a university with top-rated art and drama schools should not be expected to ruffle so many feathers.

There is deep dismay that CMU leaders did not unequivocally defend both student performances. The School of Art's mission includes "cultivating a broad-spectrum approach to artistic possibilities" and promoting "experimentation, crossing boundaries and hybrid processes." Its students experiment within this ethos, at times successfully and sometimes with constructive failure.

Regardless, independence and risk-taking are encouraged and expected. That is the nature of education. Excellent universities embrace and foster this atmosphere.

Furthermore, art students and faculty operate with the understanding that they are protected by the First Amendment and the university's freedom-of-expression policy. This is why the administration's reaction and reasoning have been deeply disappointing.

Where the First Amendment is concerned, and where its protection is uncertain when it may conflict with narrowly written state law, the university should follow the most liberal interpretation, as our students performed without malice or sexual pandering. Such a stance may not be popular or palatable to the general public, but the university is not the general public. It is, and should be, a special enclave where ideas are freely expressed and challenged, not censured.

"Freedom of expression" refers to a wide arena of ideas, acts and practices that are essential to a democratic society and that constitute a profoundly ethical stance. The university's characterization of our students' actions, its premature apology and its filing of charges contradicts the primary purpose of its freedom-of-expression policy, which is to affirm certain values. This failure threatens to delegitimize the essentially ethical (not just regulatory) basis of the policy itself.

By construing its ruling as a simple application of state law regarding nudity and by excluding issues of freedom of expression from consideration, the CMU administration short-changed and circumvented what should have been a more consultative and deliberative process regarding the gray zone between freedom of expression and the law.

The administration should have: defended our students' rights to free expression and refrained from filing charges; communicated regret that some (not all) people were offended and promised to improve measures to avoid encounters with future unwilling or unwitting spectators; and recognized that state law prohibits public nudity but left it to any aggrieved parties to file charges, with the understanding that the rule of law, in principle, is paramount but not sacrosanct, and that it is always evolving.

Today, CMU should: publicly apologize to the students, withdraw the charges, offer restitution for any incurred legal expenses, publicly correct inaccuracies (internal and external), retract premature judgments, sponsor campus forums for discussing the rights and responsibilities of artists and academics, further explore freedom of expression's true scope and value, and reaffirm and further clarify, if necessary, its freedom of expression policy, which reads: "The university must be a place where all ideas may be expressed freely and where no alternative is withheld from consideration."

Free speech and freedom of expression are at the heart of the U.S. Constitution, and this local case reminds us of its broader significance. Defending its principles, even in the most controversial of circumstances, fosters an open intellectual and creative society and an educational environment where, by necessity, conflicting ideas are tolerated and have a chance to thrive. Any university, but particularly one of CMU's stature, needs to celebrate the rights that protect us all, on and off campus.

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Susanne Slavick is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University (slavick@andrew.cmu.edu). Another 18 CMU faculty and staff members signed on to this article.


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