Dissent vs. Vandalism

Northern Kentucky suspends professor photographed removing anti-abortion display on campus.
April 19, 2006

Northern Kentucky University has suspended a tenured literature professor, immediately removing her from teaching four courses, because of her role in the destruction of an anti-abortion display on campus.

Sally Jacobsen was in her last semester before retirement when she decided last week to take a stand against a large display of crosses and a sign that said "Cemetery of the Innocents." The display has been set up by a new anti-abortion student group, responding to the creation of a faculty group at Northern Kentucky that backed abortion rights.

While Jacobsen is no longer talking to reporters, she told The Cincinnati Enquirer on Friday that she had invited students in one of her courses "to express their freedom-of-speech rights to destroy the display if they wished to." Jacobsen called the display a "slap in the face" to woman contemplating abortion. (On Tuesday night, she apparently changed her view about the situation, and apologized in an interview with a local television station. "I deeply regret my impulsive action," Jacobsen said, adding that she wanted the university "to be able to defuse the firestorm of attention around this.")

Jacobsen wouldn't tell The Enquirer if she had participated in the destruction of the display, but the student newspaper at Northern Kentucky, The Northerner, shot photographs of her in what appears to be an active role taking down a sign that was part of the display.

Since those photographs appeared, anti-abortion groups have been having a field day -- and the university has had considerable discussion about free speech and dissent. Faculty leaders -- including the organizer of a group of professors who favor abortion rights -- have condemned the vandalizing of the display. And some say that Jacobsen's actions were not only wrong, but hide the reality that it is professors who favor abortion rights who need to guard their words and actions in Kentucky.

In just days, Jacobsen was removed from her courses. She had previously announced plans to retire at the end of the semester.

In a statement, President James C. Votruba said it was important to view Jacobsen in the context of her entire 27-year career at the university. But he also said that her "lapse of judgment was severe."

Votruba also said he was pleased that many of those who condemned the vandalism disagreed with the point of the display -- and he said that this respect for the views of others was in the best spirit of a university. "At their best, universities are not places of comfortable conformity," he said. "They are places where ideas collide as students and faculty search for deeper understandings and perspectives."

The Faculty Senate also issued a statement defending free expression. "Advocating provocative and controversial positions is in the highest tradition of academia," the statement said. But it added: "Those having strong opinions on one side of an issue must recognize that others may have equally strong opinions that are contrary to theirs, and that those hold differing opinions have the same right of expression."

Bill Oliver, a chemistry professor who is president of the Faculty Senate, said that faculty members thought it important to speak out quickly in the wake of the vandalism of the display. "We didn't think it should all fall on the administration's shoulders," he said.

Another group that spoke out was Educators for Reproductive Freedom, a new group of professors who favor abortion rights and sex education that goes beyond the abstinence-only approach favored in the region. It was the creation of this group that prompted the anti-abortion display to be set up, but the abortion-rights supporters strongly back free speech and condemn the vandalism, said Nancy Slonneger Hancock, one of the organizers and an associate professor of philosophy. Hancock added that Jacobsen had never participated in any of the group's events.

Hancock said that part of the damage done by Jacobsen's action was to suggest that free expression is limited for those who oppose abortion. In the part of Kentucky where the university is located, the opposite is true, Hancock said.

While she praised the university's president as a strong support of faculty rights to free speech, she said that professors like her who move from other parts of the country quickly learn some hard lessons. When you drive with old Kerry or Gore bumper stickers on your car, she said, other drivers cut you off or shout obscenities. Other members of her group, who moved to town with abortion rights bumper stickers, have had their tires slashed. And when word got out about the faculty group's meetings -- to date, just two brown bag lunch sessions -- anti-abortion students picketed, thrusting fetus pictures in people's faces.

"It's a very hostile environment," she said. "If anyone's free speech is being stifled, it's not the pro-lifers."

Anti-abortion groups at the university and in the local area did not respond to e-mail or voicemail messages Tuesday.

While Hancock said she disagreed with Jacobsen's action, she said she agreed that a response was in order to the display of crosses -- but one that did not infringe on anyone's freedom of expression. Hancock's group had planned to wait until the display was taken down on schedule, and then to set up an information table with pamphlets on reproductive rights, abortion laws in Kentucky, and other relevant materials.

The display table goes up today.


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