(CNSNews.com) - Just before Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the United States Tuesday, a Catholic university in Minnesota that had previously blocked a pro-life speaker from appearing on campus reversed its position.
The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul has previously hosted left-of-center activists who are hostile to church teachings, so conservative students questioned why the school would bar someone who endorses church teachings.
Jason Mattera, a spokesman with the conservative Young America's Foundation (YAF), said the timing of the pope's visit may have prompted the school to change its mind.
"For a Catholic institution to deny a pro-life speaker on campus at a time when the pope is making a historic visit to America just became an embarrassment," Mattera said. "It's startling that a school named after one of the greatest thinkers in civilization is displaying such anti-intellectualism. Let's treat college students like the adults they are and allow them to hear from a variety of speakers and form their own conclusions."
Star Parker, a Christian activist and writer, is now scheduled to speak at the University of St. Thomas on Monday, April 21. She is expected to discuss the impact of abortion on minority communities. Parker, who is African-American, specializes on the topic of race and poverty in America.
In a news bulletin, the university told students, faculty members and staff that the initial decision to bar Parker from appearing on campus had less to do with Parker herself than it did with concern about outside organizations such as YAF, a Washington-based organization that makes conservative speakers available to interested student groups across the country.
The previous arrangement did not allow school officials to exercise sufficient oversight authority, the bulletin explained.
"We have a great deal of discomfort with the Young America's Foundation," James Winterer, the director of the St. Thomas News Service, said in an interview. "They can talk about free speech and they can attack us, but we are a private institution and we can make selections about who we want to have and who we want to have."
The antagonism between St. Thomas and YAF extends from 2005, when Ann Coulter spoke on campus. The conservative columnist and author delivered an address that was viewed by some administrators as inflammatory and beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse. Coulter's appearance was funded by YAF and attracted over 700 students.
Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, did not attend the lecture himself but wrote an editorial at the time that discussed the reaction of some students and university staff members who did.
While acknowledging that the school's own policy allowed for the expression of controversial statements, he nevertheless concluded that Coulter engaged in "hateful speech that vulgarizes our culture and goes against everything the University of St. Thomas stands for."
For his part, Mattera said Coulter was well-received by most audience members and that the only vulgarities expressed during her presentation came from a handful of "intolerant liberal students."
Jane Canney, the vice president for student affairs, was one audience member who found Coulter's remarks disturbing and assumed a lead role in attempting to block Star from appearing on campus this month, according to YAF.
Katie Kieffer, a 2005 alumna of St. Thomas and founder of the St. Thomas Standard, and her sister Amie Kieffer, a senior at St. Thomas, asked Canney to reconsider her position.
"As long as I am vice president at St. Thomas, the Young America's Foundation will not be allowed on campus," Canney responded when confronted by the sisters.
The hostility toward YAF amounts to little more than liberal intolerance that should not hold sway in academic settings where alternative viewpoints should be exchanged in an unrestrained manner, Mattera argued.
"Campus liberals are unaccustomed to hearing conservative voices in their echo chambers, so it's not uncommon for them to become discomforted when hearing alternative opinions," he said. "Canney should not deprive students of the right to hear Star Parker's ideas. That's too bad if Canney is disturbed or upset, she needs to grow up. We are all offended or disturbed by something."
Cybercast News Service attempted to reach Canney by phone and by email for comment but she did not respond.
As a result of Coulter's 2005 address ,the school did feel a strong need to reshape its polices and to "tighten up its oversight," Winterer, the St. Thomas News Service director, said. Although the university still has concerns about YAF, the door is open to future speakers so long as a contract can be established, he explained.
"The contract would involve a speaker agreeing to basic items such as not saying certain derogatory things, not being inebriated, not making fun of the Catholic Church, gays or people with disabilities," Winterer said.
For his part, Mattera indicated that YAF would not agree to sign off on any contract that negated free speech rights. "We will not allow the administrators to be the arbiters of what is acceptable speech and what is not acceptable speech," he said. "We will not participate in the political profiling of conservatives."
Parker's appearance on Monday is a YAF-sponsored event, Mattera said. She did not sign a contract; however, the university is paying the speaker's fee and related expenses. The "Students for Human Life" and the St. Thomas Standard also had a hand in organizing Parker's appearance.
"St. Thomas proudly functions within the Catholic intellectual tradition," Dr. Mark Dienhart, executive vice president and chief administrative officer, is quoted as saying in the news bulletin. "We are now and always have been fully supportive of the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. This issue has always been about what is the appropriate involvement of the university in scheduling speakers, not about any particular speaker or his or her message. We are glad to have reached this agreement with Ms. Parker."
But recent history would suggest St. Thomas officials are more interested in promoting left-wing ideas than they are in preserving the Catholic tradition, Mattera argued. Other on-campus speakers have included Debra Davis, an outspoken transgender activist, and Al Franken, a liberal commentator.
"It is ironic to find that when the pope is visiting America, a Catholic university is operating in contradiction to its own tradition and Catholic theology," Mattera said.
Katie Kieffer, the alumna and newspaper editor, expressed strong support for Parker in a YAF press release and criticized the university for what she perceived to be its failure to live up its stated commitment on behalf of intellectual inquiry.
"Star Parker is enthusiastic about educating young people about abortion's demoralizing effect, ideas which are in complete alignment with St. Thomas' stated positions and Catholic teachings."
However, the bottom line as far as the university administration is concerned comes down to the use of external funds from YAF and other outside groups that would preclude St. Thomas from exerting sufficient oversight authority, the bulletin explained.
"We've received some of the most nasty e-mails I've ever seen, and I've been through plenty of these kinds of controversies here over the past 28 years," Winterer told Cybercast News Service in his own email message.
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