Two Carnegie Mellon University art students who marched nude in their school's Downhill Derby in April will have to serve 80 hours of community service in exchange for having charges of indecent exposure dropped. It is a wise compromise.
Had Katherine B. O'Connor, 19, and Robb S. Godshaw, 22, been convicted on the second-degree misdemeanor charges, both would have been compelled by law to register as sex offenders in some states -- a ridiculous turn of events for students who believed their protest was protected by school tradition and First Amendment guarantees.
Mr. Godshaw began the march in full astronaut gear, but gradually disrobed in order to give the universe its first look at a naked astronaut. Ms. O'Connor wore papal regalia from the waist up, but skipped pants and underwear. A cross was shaved into her pubic hair, an irreverent gesture that quickly attracted the attention of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.
Ms. O'Connor insisted that there was a serious point to her protest and that it wasn't a matter of prurient sacrilege. The graduate of a Catholic high school in the Philadelphia suburbs said she was calling attention to the pedophile priest scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church for more than a decade. Instead of writing a letter to the editor, she used her own body to make a point that obviously got lost in translation.
Bishop David Zubik was offended by Ms. O'Connor's outfit and asked CMU president Jared Cohon to investigate it. Mr. Cohon wrote a letter to the university community apologizing to those who were offended. A month later, campus police filed misdemeanor charges against the students for indecent exposure. It was the moral equivalent of using a sledgehammer to kill a fly.
In a deal worked out by CMU and the district attorney's office, the artists on Monday were given the option of community service over a trial that could've resulted in guilty verdicts. They don't deserve to have their career opportunities limited or their lives potentially ruined because they appeared naked in public. Community service is a fair and reasonable outcome.
Still, it will put future artists on notice about community sensitivities in Pittsburgh. They will have to ask themselves whether they want to risk a charge of indecency if their protest involves nudity combined with a sharp critique of any religious denomination that has a university president's ear.opinion_editorials