The tension between First Amendment rights and students’ right to feel safe on campus exploded into controversy Jan. 28 when a student passed out copies of Ray Comfort’s “God & Sexuality” to an Intro to LGBTQ Studies class. University of Louisville President Neeli Bendapudi emailed the U of L community Feb. 6 after meeting with the class and said the university must find a balance between upholding the First Amendment and fostering inclusivity.
She said resources and opportunities to educate the community will be made available with the help of Provost Beth Boehm and interim-dean David Owen. There will apparently be no formal action taken against the unnamed student who passed out the information.
After the class found the pamphlets on their desks, the student waited outside the classroom where the students and professor Kaila Story found him.
Story asked him to leave and he did.
Students from the class report he returned Jan. 30 and campus police escorted him from the classroom.
U of L spokesperson John Karman said administrators met with all faculty that raised the issue Feb. 3. Other administrators met with the student Feb. 4 and report he said he only wanted to raise awareness, not intimidate.
“The university values diversity in all its forms, including diversity of opinion. That said, student safety is our top priority. We will continue to monitor the situation and will take steps to ensure an environment that supports the highest level of learning,” Karman said.
Dean of Students Michael Mardis said that the office has had a Student Care Team for years that is made up of professionals in law enforcement, mental health, campus health and student health. He said team members assess students based on their previous and current behavior, facts and circumstance of the situation, in-person observation, in-class behaviors and on and off-campus behaviors. “Without the ability of its members to freely hear, express, and debate different ideas and points of view, the University would lack the culture of free inquiry that lies at the foundation of the academic enterprise,” Mardis said.
Story said she is disturbed by how the Dean of Students office originally treated the incident. “In these terrifying times of school shootings and public displays of violence, I would like to think that a university office would be just as alarmed as me and my students were regarding this issue,” she said.
Junior Alexander Vernon, who is in the class, said, “The last thing I would want is anyone else who holds hateful or harmful bigotry towards anyone on this campus targeting any other minority groups or the LGBTQ students again.”
Ricky Jones, chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies, said there is something wrong with both the law and university policy if this type of behavior is allowed. Jones said there was no reason for the student to return to the class because he already passed out the literature.
Dawn Heineken, head of the department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, said Mardis did not seem to understand why students, faculty and the chairs of two departments found this scary. “I think the university needs to look long and hard at its internal processes,” she said.
“It definitely needs to ensure that folks making decisions about questions related to student learning, safety and well-being need to be better educated on, and take more seriously, the concerns of all students – especially students from marginalized groups who already have to struggle every day to feel safe and respected in the wider world.”
The president of a a student organization for LGBTQ + students of color and their allies said the university did not address the issue properly. Shades President Luke Moore said that they were disappointed in the response from the university.
“They need to ask themselves whether or not free speech is more important than the lives and the safety of their LGBTQ+ students, who they love to use to promote our university and talk about how LGBT-friendly it is and how young LGBT students should be coming here,” Moore said.
Bendapudi wrote, “I learned today from my conversation how frightening and painful the experience was for the bright, passionate, and engaged students in Dr. Kaila Story’s Introduction to LGBTQ Studies class. I also learned we have much work to do to make sure that all students (and faculty and staff) feel welcome and supported on our campus. There are clearly areas where we need to improve in terms of caring for our campus community, communicating appropriately, and responding swiftly.”
Jones said the class has written letters of complaint to the administration, talked to reporters outside of the university and refused to hide their names. He said, “I’m very proud of them for doing that in an age where silence is rewarded more than being brave.”
“I think those students and the professor have every right to do everything under the sun to not only protect their lives and protect their right to learn, but also protect their dignity and their right to exist in this place and in this world,” Jones said.
Jones scheduled a forum at 2 p.m. Monday, Feb. 10 to discuss the issue publicly. See Louisvillecardinal.com for updated info, as this meeting is after our deadline for this issue.
Photo courtesy from Kaila Story