Students speak out against speaker approval system

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A cross section of Saint Louis University student groups have criticized SLU’s policy regarding the invitation of outside speakers to campus, stating that the University’s guidelines can either prevent a worthwhile speaker from being invited, or, in some cases, they are not given specific reasons why such speakers were rejected. In addition, they said that SLU’s response time was often less than desirable, forcing them to scramble to put into place alternative plans when their original choices were deemed unsuitable.

“Everything [about the policy] is confusing and hypocritical,” sophomore Eric Behna, vice president of education and public advocacy for a campus Chartered Student Organization, said.

Behna, who requested that his CSO remain anonymous, said his group ran into difficulties with SLU administrators in early October when he was about to schedule an event on campus.

“The event was approved last year, and we submitted the speakers when school started,” Behna said.

Behna said an executive with Kacie Starr Triplett, a housing group whose territory includes much of St. Louis, agreed to speak at the campus event. Behna said her primary topic was scheduled to be about the number of city residents who currently live in substandard housing, the ramifications of such circumstances and what role the SLU community can play in helping to alleviate the problem. Behna said he “resubmitted” her name to the Student Involvement Center about three weeks before the event. He said he had not received word from the SIC on the status of Triplett’s approval.

“One and a half or two weeks before, the president [of the CSO] heard it through the grapevine that our speaker hadn’t been approved,” Behna said.

While not directly addressing Behna’s assertions, SLU Manager of Operations of the Student Involvement Center David Young said that the speaker policy mission statement has been in effect for two years.

He said the policy language gives students “room” to recognize how it will affect their choices.

While stating that some students see the statement as a setback, Young views it as an effective way to ensure that the University’s role in the process is well represented.

“I feel that the mission statement has upheld itself pretty well,” Young said. “I believe it gives the right amount of uniformity in the sense that it can be referred back to as a document.

I just have the hope that students see that our wish is to benefit the whole community as well as the organization wanting to represent this speaker.”

An ‘03 SLU graduate who has been in his role at the University for the past three years, Young acknowledged SLU’s central mission as a Jesuit institution plays a central role in the process.

“We want to see how congruent the subject matter is. It is not so much about who the speaker is as what they are speaking of,” Young said. “When students are representing a Jesuit institution, we must be respectful of all views. To have one student feel uncomfortable during a speech is the opposite of what we want as a reaction.”

In response to some students’ criticisms that “big names” are not allowed on campus, Young reiterated the importance of the subject matter.

“To bring Snooki to SLU would draw an audience, but what she would talk about wouldn’t apply to making the SLU community as a whole stronger other than watching Jersey Shore directly after,” Young said said.

Behna said that he believed the primary reason that Triplett was rejected as a speaker for his group was because she sits on a board for Planned Parenthood.

He said this occured even though it was stressed that she was not going to speak about anything connected to her role on the organization.

He said he was told that her appearance at SLU “would upset people in the community and alumni.”

“I feel like maybe they are sacrificing our experience as students,” Behna said. “I tried to get a dynamic, young speaker, and they were censoring me. We have this whole ‘Oath of Inclusion’ where we include all world views. It’s hypocritical because people at the top don’t do it themselves.”

Returning to his other main criticism, the lack of direction and timeliness on the part of the University, Behna said navigating the speaker invitation red tape was challenging at best.

“Because I had started the process in plenty of time before, it was pure luck at the last minute that I was able to find someone else,” Behna said.

Echoing Behna’s frustration was Theresa Meinert, a senior nursing major who is involved in Una, the campus feminist group.

“We’ve had problems getting events approved,” she said. “They would give us a ‘no’ with no reasoning,” Meinert said.  She also used the word censorship when describing her group’s experiences with SLU administrators.

“They’re skeptical of anything that is ‘sex positive,’” Meinert said. “It’s disheartening sometimes. You need to be challenged to grow and learn. You don’t really know what you believe until you hear something you don’t agree with at all.”

Terrence Murphy, vice president of Rainbow Alliance, also offered his experiences with inviting a guest speaker to SLU.

He said that before the semester ended last May, his group submitted forms to invite a speaker named Julia Serano to campus. Serano is a transsexual slam poet and musician.

Murphy was in St. Louis over the summer and regularly checked in with the Student Involvement Center for updates on the status of the forms.

In early-to-mid August, Murphy got word of the denial of his group’s suggested speaker.

“I requested a written response outlining their denial of the speaker,” Murphy said.  “They denied it and said they didn’t need to provide a response to us. A lot of her work, her poetry and her performance art is geared toward trans issues, and we thought she would attract a large crowd.”

Murphy said in his involvement with SIC, the department failed to respond to him in a timely fashion.

“It took the administration four months, one third of the year, to get back to us, which is an inappropriate amount of time,” Murphy said.

One of Murphy’s main concerns with the policy is the lack of accountability and conversation from the administration.

“If the speaker policy is going to reject any speaker or performer that might criticize the Catholic Church as an institution, that limits dialogue, which means that SLU is no longer an institution of learning,” Murphy said.

“Learning is contingent upon dialogue and both sides of the issue.”

Young reiterated that the SLU mission statement says that speakers who will benefit the whole, asking students to visualize the process as a sort of triangular situation.

“I would hope that organizations would bring someone that would be able to link the entire triangle: organization, speaker, SLU student body.

I feel that if the students were to step back and see how this would benefit themselves, but more so the entirety, it would bring the community closer in appreciation of a great speaker.”