Dozens of students walked out of Notre Dame University‘s commencement exercise on Sunday to protest a speech by United States Vice-President Mike Pence, who warned graduates of the prestigious Catholic school against suppressing free speech.
The protesters, among the thousands of graduates and guests assembled in the university‘s football stadium, stood up when the conservative Republican began his speech and streamed out of the ceremony, to the jeers of some of those who remained.
A few of the students had messages of protest attached to their traditional “mortarboard” graduation caps. One of them displayed an inverted US flag, a sign of protest popularised during the Vietnam War era, and the words “Are we great again yet?” a reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
"Either we are all Notre Dame or none of us are," says student who walked out during Pence commencement speech https://t.co/redUOkPXZ5
— CNN (@CNN) May 21, 2017
In his speech at the Indiana school, Pence squarely addressed the festering controversy of what constitutes free speech on campus, an issue that has intensified at many universities since Trump’s election victory last year.
“I would submit the increasing intolerance and suppression of the time-honoured tradition of free expression on our campuses jeopardises the liberties of every American. This should not, and must not be met with silence,” Pence said, in an apparent reference to efforts to bar him from speaking.
Protests – some of them violent – have erupted at schools across the country in recent months to stop appearances by conservative commentators such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. In at least some cases, schools have cancelled the events, citing safety concerns.
Organisers of the Notre Dame protest said they wanted to voice their objections to policies advocated by Pence as part of the Trump administration and while he was governor, including a proposal to suspend immigration from some Muslim-majority countries, which has so far been blocked in courts.
A bunch of students left Notre Dame's commencement while Mike Pence was speaking. pic.twitter.com/jPwRbFjMWe
— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) May 21, 2017
“The participation and degree-conferring of VP Pence stand as an endorsement of policies and actions which directly contradict Catholic social teachings and values,” undergraduate Xitlaly Estrada was quoted as saying in a statement from We Stand For ND, a group that helped organise the walk-out.
Pence, who served as Indiana’s governor before his election as vice-president, also took issue with efforts at some US universities to shelter students from what they consider objectionable points of view or to recommend language to be used in classes or other school functions.
“Far too many campuses across America have been characterised by speech codes, safe zones, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness all of which amounts to nothing less than the suppression of the freedom of speech,” Pence told the audience at the campus in South Bend.
Pence delivered his address as Trump completed the initial day of the first overseas trip of his presidency. In a speech in Saudi Arabia, Trump called on Middle Eastern leaders to do their fair share to defeat Islamist extremists.