Students protest amid Downhill Derby controversy

Anna Walsh May 21, 2013

Students gathered to protest outside Warner Hall on Thursday in response to an email from Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon, which they say could threaten the freedom of expression on campus.

Cohon's email, sent to the campus community Tuesday evening, addressed an ongoing controversy surrounding a performance at Spring Carnival's Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby, in which a female art student dressed as the pope and was naked from the waist down, her pubic hair shaved in the shape of a cross. Cohon called the act "highly offensive" and said the university is still investigating to determine whether disciplinary action is warranted.

"I regret that this occurred, and I apologize to all who were offended by this, for religious or other reasons, and especially to those who witnessed this behavior," he wrote.

The student protesters, however, say that disciplinary action against the student would represent a limitation on freedom of expression. About 20 to 30 students stood in front of the administration building throughout the afternoon, holding signs with slogans like, "I support your right to offend me" and "Don't make Downhill Derby a slippery slope." Three university police officers stood stationed in front of the doors of Warner Hall throughout the protest.

"When I read Cohon's email, I got offended that he called it highly offensive," said Anshuman Bansal, a first-year computer science major. "As president, he's the mouthpiece for the university, and I don't think that [email] represents the entire student body.... I don't think we can really have an art school if we can't accept that art will offend somebody."

Bansal held a sign that read, "No apologies for free expression."

"His email came close to crossing a line," said Daniel Kirby, a senior physics major. "I'm not comfortable with that email, but I'm not here to protest that email. I'm here to make sure that no other action is taken, that no punitive action is taken, that the right to freedom of speech on campus is upheld as per the university guidelines."

The student artist in question, who said she was advised by the university to withhold her name from the press, said she was upset when she read Cohon's email. "Up until yesterday, I have been told that everybody in the university, all the way up the chain, has been completely in support," she said. Thus, when she received Cohon's email, she felt "like I was thrown under the bus."

"Yes, [my performance] was offensive," she said, "but look at the conversation it's started on campus."

Students were not the only ones upset by President Cohon's email. Professor Clark Glymour, a university professor in the philosophy department, submitted an open letter to a Facebook group, "Send Letters of Protest to Jared Cohon," that was formed Wednesday night. In the letter, he wrote, "Your letter to the campus concerning events in the arts parade in April of this year threatens to put you, and the University on a false footing.... Your public response was a palpably political document, promising to put the student in question through an unspecified process and calling her behavior offensive, without qualification as to who was offended."

As the student protesters held signs, they engaged passing students in conversation about the incident. Kate Uncapher, a sophomore chemical engineering and engineering and public policy double major, said that as a Catholic, "we recognize that you get to do what you want. However, when you sign up to be a student at Carnegie Mellon, you do sign up to follow a code of conduct.... The code of conduct as far as I am concerned was violated."

"I can see that others don't think it was violated," she added, gesturing toward the protesters, "but I believe that Carnegie Mellon as a private institution has the ability to tell you how you should act, because we signed up for it."

Although Cohon did not attend the protest, Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno came and spoke to some of the students, according to senior logic and computation major Madelyn Glymour, who helped to organize the protest. Casalegno commended them for being respectful in their protest. "We've been very pleased with how respectful everyone's been, by and large," Glymour said.

The incident first became controversial on Monday, when KDKA-TV reported that the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh found the performance inappropriate and offensive. "I’m upset because I think what happened at Carnegie Mellon is really not just an insult to us as Catholics, but it was an insult to other religious denominations and it was an insult to who we are as American citizens,” Bishop David Zubik told KDKA.

The Catholic League also released a statement on Tuesday about the incident, comparing it to the ongoing investigation into the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. "CMU’s decision not to suspend this female student, who publicly ridiculed Catholics and violated the local ordinance on public nudity, while invoking sanctions against the frat boys for offensive behavior behind closed doors, is legally problematic and morally indefensible," wrote the league's president, Bill Donohue.

The story has since been picked up by larger news outlets, including The Huffington Post and conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.

KDKA incorrectly reported that the student artist was handing out condoms. The artist clarified that she had not handed out condoms; another student, who was also dressed as the pope, had passed out condoms on his float. She explained that her performance was meant to address the ongoing sex scandals in the Catholic church and to criticize how Pope Benedict XVI handled the cases.