CMU review of 'pope girl' nude protest ends with indecent exposure charges

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Carnegie Mellon University's review of two students' public nudity at an on-campus parade last month came to this conclusion Friday by the university president: Students have the right to express controversial views, but not to break the law.

In a letter sent to the university community, President Jared L. Cohon wrote that campus police had filed misdemeanor charges for indecent exposure against two students, identified in court records as Katherine B. O'Connor, 19, and Robb S. Godshaw, 22.

But, Mr. Cohon said, citing the university's freedom of expression policy, there would be no separate disciplinary action taken by the university.

"While I recognize that many found the students' activities deeply offensive, the university upholds their right to create works of art and express their ideas," he said. "But, public nudity is a violation of the law and subject to appropriate action."

Ms. O'Connor could not be reached Friday. In an email, Mr. Godshaw declined a request for an interview.

"On the advice of counsel, neither myself nor fellow nude artist are giving comments at this time," he wrote.

The parade, a College of Fine Arts tradition known as the "Annual Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby," took place April 18 on the area of CMU's campus known as the "cut" as part of the university's spring carnival. That afternoon, campus police were notified that a naked woman was on campus, according to the criminal complaint.

The woman, later identified as Ms. O'Connor, was wearing a pope costume, but had no clothing below her waist, and on her pubic area was the shape of a cross.

Mr. Godshaw's outfit, or lack thereof, had not received much public notice prior to Friday's announcement of the charges. On Mr. Godshaw's Facebook page, he is tagged in a photo taken at the parade that depicts a man wearing only socks and shoes. The criminal complaint says Mr. Godshaw had been walking on a giant wheel textured like the moon and had been dressed in an astronaut's costume before he disrobed.

According to the Carnegie Mellon online directory, Mr. Godshaw is a junior and Ms. O'Connor is a sophomore. Both are studying art.

The nudity incidents, noted by campus police on the day of the event, became more high profile after Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik expressed concern about Ms. O'Connor's display, saying it was offensive. CMU officials investigated following Bishop Zubik's complaint, and on May 1, Mr. Cohon wrote a letter to the community apologizing to those who were offended.

The decision today, to file charges, was greeted positively by Catholic officials.

Bishop Zubik, in a statement Friday, acknowledged that CMU "has taken the time to treat this unfortunate incident in a serious manner.

"Once again, and as I have said over these last few weeks, this is an opportunity for all of us to be reminded that freedom of speech and freedom of expression do not constitute a freedom to dismiss or disrespect the beauty of anyone's race, the sacredness of anyone's religious belief or the uniqueness of anyone's nationality."

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League said Mr. Cohon's letter "balances the need for freedom of expression with a commitment to fighting intolerance." He added that there was "nothing artistic about this infantile anti-Catholic insult."

But ACLU Pennsylvania legal director Witold Walczak expressed disappointment in the outcome.

"It's a really sad day when a respected institution of higher learning plays the censor in response to outside influence," he said. He said he did not know if the ACLU would get involved in the situation.

Robert D. Richards, a professor of First Amendment studies at Penn State University and founding director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment, said the bishop was "off the mark" in his description of the First Amendment.

He cited the example of protections given to the Westboro Baptist Church, a group that has received criticism for its protests at soldiers' funerals.

"The bishop's interpretation of the First Amendment is entirely inconsistent with the law," Mr. Richards said. "In fact, some of the very things he mentioned in the statement are exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect."

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. First Published May 10, 2013 5:00 PM


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