To the Carnegie Mellon Community:
Last week, I wrote to you about the university's process for dealing with the incidents of student nudity during the College of Fine Arts' Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby on Carnival Weekend. I promised to write to you once the internal process had been completed. In this message I describe how the matter has been resolved and the rationale for the outcome.
Let me begin by quoting the university's freedom of expression policy which can be found in its entirety at http://www.cmu.edu/policies/documents/FreeSpeech.html:
"Carnegie Mellon University values the freedoms of speech, thought, expression and assembly—in themselves and as part of our core educational and intellectual mission. The university must be a place where all ideas may be expressed freely and where no alternative is withheld from consideration. The only limits on these freedoms are those dictated by law and those necessary to protect the rights of other members of the university community and to ensure the normal functioning of the university."
Our policy makes it clear that Carnegie Mellon is committed to the rights of its students to express controversial views, while recognizing some key restrictions on that expression—including those dictated by law. This policy was revised six years ago in a widely consultative process with input from all parts of campus including faculty, students, staff, the administrative leadership and the Board of Trustees.
We relied on this policy to frame our decision making in this matter. In this situation, the issue is public nudity by two students, one woman and one man, at an open event which members of the public historically have attended, without warning to or protection of anyone who might unwittingly be witness to that exposure. This is a violation of Pennsylvania law.
Carnegie Mellon's Campus Police, who are commissioned by the state to enforce the law, have filed misdemeanor charges for indecent exposure against the two students. Final disposition of these charges will occur through the Allegheny County justice system, not through university channels. There will be no separate disciplinary action pursued through the university's internal process.
The students took part in a campus art event and, in the case of the student who portrayed herself as the Pope, made an artistic statement which proved to be controversial. 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. But, public nudity is a violation of the law and subject to appropriate action.
I understand that this resolution may not be supported by those who believe that there can be no limits on the freedom of artistic expression. Others who were particularly offended by the incident may be distressed that more severe action is not being taken.
There are competing values at issue here: Carnegie Mellon aims to be a place where ideas can be expressed and debated openly, but also where people of all backgrounds, faiths, and beliefs feel welcomed and supported. Unavoidably, the expression of some views will offend some people; that is the price of this freedom. However, if in the expression of these views, people in our community come to feel that the campus is intolerant, then the other of our cherished values is challenged. In such a situation, the institution may find it necessary to reassure those offended of its commitment to tolerance and inclusion. In doing so, I do not believe that the institution is compromising freedom of expression. Similarly, it is reasonable to expect individuals to consider the impact on others in expressing their views and how they choose to express them. This is responsibility, not censorship, and something that our students, especially, should learn while they are members of our community.
It is our practice in controversial situations such as this one to provide opportunities for discussion, where all sides have a chance to express their views. This has already begun on the campus. Members of our community are asking themselves the difficult questions about what happened here, and embracing their responsibility to create a context in which events like these can continue to be held in a manner which is consistent with the full range of our values. These values include, certainly, freedom of expression, but also the cultivation of an inclusive, mutually respectful environment, and respect for the law. Being aware of and acting on those values is my responsibility as your President, and, in this circumstance, the School of Art, the College of Fine Arts, and the Office of Student Affairs.
Our students, and the faculty who advise them, must have a clear understanding of the complexity of these issues. Our investigation of this incident revealed that our freedom of expression policy is not as well understood today as it was when it was adopted six years ago—especially by students, faculty, and staff who have come to the university since then. We will do a better job of making all members of our community aware of their rights to free speech and their responsibilities to the community.
I hope that, in that spirit, this incident will inspire thoughtful discussions at Carnegie Mellon and beyond, and affirm our beliefs in the freedom and the responsibility that are essential to the life of the university.
Jared L. Cohon
Carnegie Mellon University