Woman Parading Dressed as Pope from Waist Up, Naked from Waist Down, Charged with Public Nudity

TribLive (Pittsurgh) reports:

Carnegie Mellon University police on Friday filed charges of indecent exposure against two art students accused of public nudity during a campus parade sponsored by the College of Fine Arts.

Police identified the female student accused of parodying the pope as she paraded nude from the waist down as Katherine B. O’Connor, 19 …, a sophomore art major ….

University President Jared Cohon, who has publicly apologized for the April 18 papal parody, announced the charges in an email on Friday. He said the university will not discipline the students.

Police charged Robb S. Godshaw, 22, of Wilmette, Ill., accusing him of dressing as an astronaut and disrobing atop a float during the parade. Photographs on Godshaw’s Facebook page show him disrobing and riding the float naked, police said in court documents….

The criminal charges capped a university review triggered by an inquiry from Bishop David Zubik of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. Zubik asked the university to take a stand on the papal parody, which he found offensive….

“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,” Zubik said.

“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,” Cohon said.

“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.”

Some thoughts:

1. Public nudity is indeed illegal in Pennsylvania, and if the facts show that the defendants’ genitalia were indeed visible, that’s a crime. Nor do I think that there is a defense for public nudity — or public sex — when engaged in for artistic or political purposes, though I recognize that there are interesting questions about how constitutional doctrine has developed in this area (with publicly visible displays of moving pictures of nudity, for instance, being generally protected by the First Amendment, Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville (1975), but live nudity being unprotected).

And I doubt that this is a case of selective prosecution, in which people whose expression is blasphemous are punished for violating a law that others routinely violate with impunity: My sense is that people who go around naked in public in Pittsburgh are going to be prosecuted regardless of their message. So I doubt there is a First Amendment problem here, though there might have been if this indeed involved a law that is otherwise unenforced.

2. The Bishop’s view of free speech is, however, quite constrained. “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.” Religious beliefs are beliefs, and others may quite plausibly not have respect for what the beliefs say, or how they were arrived at; and of course they may doubt that those beliefs are “sacred.”

It is often counterproductive, juvenile, and ill-mannered to express disrespect for others’ religious beliefs in certain ways, but under First Amendment law — which I think is exactly right on this score — dismissing and disrespecting the sacredness of others’ religious beliefs is very much a part of one’s freedom of speech and religious freedom. (Nor should there be any exception from the First Amendment for speech that dismisses “the beauty” of races or “the uniqueness” of nationalities.)

3. The CMU President, Dr. Cohon, issued a statement, saying, in relevant part:

Let me begin by quoting the university’s freedom of expression policy … [:]“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…. 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….

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….

On balance, this seems quite reasonable, if taken literally — as I think the University has — to mean that the response for speech that makes groups reasonably feel offended (but doesn’t violate the law) might include public statements of support for the targeted groups, but would not include suppression of the speech. And I also agree teaching students, without punishing the speech, “to consider the impact on others in expressing their views and how they choose to express them,” is a pretty reasonable goal on the university’s part, especially since the habit of considering such things will serve the students in good stead in their future lives.