GW cites free speech amid priest controversy

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The provost defended the freedom of speech Friday for the Catholic priest on campus, two weeks after a pair of seniors filed a discrimination complaint against him and launched a campaign to force him off campus for comments and actions they called anti-gay.

Provost Steven Lerman told dozens of professors at a Faculty Senate meeting that the University will continue to encourage an open dialogue on campus, marking his first public comments on gay seniors Damian Legacy’s and Blake Bergen’s complaints that Father Greg Shaffer forced them out of the Newman Center. Newman Centers operate ministries at non-Catholic universities across the country.

“Nothing anyone has said in our view goes beyond our standards of freedom of speech that we treasure in the core of our values,” Lerman said. “We as a community need to sustain those values that this is a place for open, honest and civil dialogue. And we not only permit it, but encourage it.”

Legacy and Bergen launched a campaign earlier this month for Catholic leaders in the District to remove Shaffer from campus and for GW to investigate Shaffer’s alleged discrimination against gay students. If proven, the discrimination charges would partially defund the campus Catholic center.

They are also asking the University to vet future religious leaders that come to GW and work with students.

The seniors claim Shaffer’s anti-gay comments have caused psychological damage to students. Earlier this month, Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed declined to comment on specifics about the case.

The conservative blogosphere exploded in response to their efforts, and the issue landed a spot on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News last week. A nationwide conservative student organization, TFP Student Action, also opened up an online petition in support of Shaffer, collecting about 10,500 signatures as of Sunday.

University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard said the University is still reviewing the complaint and taking it “seriously,” although administrators reviewing the case have taken flak from right-wing groups, including the nation’s top Catholic lobbying organization, for remaining largely silent over the last two weeks.

President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights Bill Donohue wrote in a statement Friday that University officials deserve an “F” grade for their handling of the allegations. Earlier this week, he called for a quick end to the controversy, which began two weeks ago when the students announced their efforts. He blamed the student-led effort for “seeking to effectively neuter the very purpose of the Newman Center.”

“There is only one party to this controversy that has crossed the line, and it isn’t Father Shaffer. The attempt to silence him shows nothing but contempt for diversity and tolerance, the twin towers of academic virtue these days,” Donohue wrote.

The Newman Center is slated to receive about $500 more in funding from the Student Association next fall than last year, totaling about $10,500. Allocations for hundreds of student groups will go before the SA Senate Monday.

Student leaders said that if the University finds signs of discrimination, however, the SA would rescind some of the funds. Chair of the SA Finance Committee Alex Mizenko declined to comment on the allocation increases, diverting questions to SA President Ashwin Narla. Narla said allocations are meant to support students’ “individual passions and goals.”

“All student organizations that apply for funding are judged with the same criteria for funding every year, and new policies in place would allow us to change their funding if the University found a student organization had broken University policies,” Narla added.

Earlier this semester, the Senate passed an anti-discrimination bill that will defund any student group by at least a third of its budget if the Office of the Dean of Students found it harassed or discriminated against students based on Department of Education guidelines.

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