May 24, 2013

A Letter to the Editor about Pope Girl

Today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carries a letter to the editor from me. It involves a controversy related to a student’s participation in an April 18 parade at Carnegie Mellon University during its annual carnival. The student, Katherine B. O’Connor, 19, wore a what passed for a mitre on her head; a red and gold, cross-emblazoned sheath covering, rather imperfectly, her chest; and, below her waist, nothing at all. Her pubic hair was shaved into the shape of a cross. She was smoking a cigarette and, according to reports, distributing condoms. (With a little effort, you can find pictures of Ms. O’Connor on the Web. Curiously, I could find no full-torso, uncensored pictures of her. Some pictures black out her crotch; others black out her face. No doubt, with Photoshop one could reconstruct a complete picture of her and her costume.)

“Pope girl” seems not to have made any news until the Roman Catholic Bishop of Pittsburgh, David Zubik, took an interest in the CMU event. The Post-Gazette published “Diocese protests ‘disrespect’ at Carnegie Mellon University parade” on May 1. According to the story, the university was “investigating” the matter at the Catholic diocese’s behest. The bishop, commenting on the pope girl presentation, said, “It is offensive to me and the church that I represent. It crosses a line.” The story further characterized Bishop Zubik’s view of the matter: “He said he hopes the female student and others learn a lesson about how their actions can be seen as discrimination against others.”

The newspaper carried stories on May 8 and 9 indicating that CMU was continuing to review the incident. That is to say, the university was trying to figure out how best to deal with a troublesome public relations problem. “CMU looking into student who dressed as pope” reported that CMU president Jared Cohon had sent e-mail to the university community calling the incident “highly offensive” and apologizing to anyone who actually found it so. (The letter prompted student protests.) The story also revealed that the then still anonymous student perpetrator “intended to criticize Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.” A diocesan spokesman, however, explained that “the importance is that nudity is not a matter of freedom of speech. And secondly we need to be sensitive to one another’s beliefs even though they may be different.” “Carnegie Mellon is still reviewing student’s parody of pope” was a minor rewrite of the story from the day before.

On May 11, the Post-Gazette reported that the university had filed misdemeanor charges of indecent exposure against Ms. O’Connor and a male student whose nude antics had been less well documented. (Is there a sexist double standard here?) (See “CMU review of ‘pope girl’ nude protest ends with indecent exposure charges.”) President Cohon is credited with this Solomonic pronouncement:
“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,” he said. “But, public nudity is a violation of the law and subject to appropriate action.”
CMU imposed no further penalty on the students.

Not surprisingly, this whole incident elicited lots of letters to the newspaper before I wrote my own. A common theme was that if a similar incident had attacked some other group (Jews, Muslims, M.L. King, Jr, etc.), we would be outraged. Ergo, we should be incensed in this case. What set me off was a May 19 letter, “Public nudity and mockery stunt exposes double standards” by Thayer K. Miller. The letter said, in part,
Not only was the one student’s nudity clearly intended to make a mockery of public morals but also it was specifically designed to smear Christianity, the Catholic Church, its religious tenets and the pope. This was verified by her mockery of the pope’s costume and the vulgar display of the cross on her private parts. If the student depicted a black person in chains being whipped or a Jew branded with a swastika there would be public outrage, even if she was fully clothed. That would be called a hate crime, to be severely punished. Hate crimes can focus not only on race and ethnicity but also on religion. If she had posed as a naked Muslim displaying the star and crescent on her private parts I am sure all hell would have broken loose and there would be a public outcry with no doubt as to its being a religious-oriented insult.
I agree that Ms. O’Connor’s performance was aimed at the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope. It is not at all clear that it represented an attack on Christianity, as if that matters. The letter writer apparently thinks a severe punishment should be meted out to Ms. O’Connor, but I’m not sure what punishment is contemplated. In any case, my reply, titled “No hate speech” by the Post-Gazette, was the following:
I can appreciate the outrage expressed in Thayer K. Miller’s letter about the half-nude Carnegie Mellon University protester (“Public Nudity and Mockery Stunt Exposes Double Standards,” May 19), but the writer exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of American liberties. The demonstration was not a hate crime but simply the exercise of the First Amendment right of free speech. A case could be made that even the “indecent exposure” was a necessary element of the student’s making her point.

Fire-bombing a church because you hate Christians might be a hate crime; expressing that hatred in words or in a demonstration that physically harms no one is not. When particular thoughts become crimes, be they “good” thoughts or “bad” thoughts, Americans will neither enjoy freedom nor deserve it.
Miller’s attitude is little different from Zubik’s. Lately, many conservative Christians have come to think of any criticism as persecution, and persecution they believe society should punish or suppress. (I don’t understand Bishop Zubik’s characterization of Pope girl as discriminatory, however. Does he think other religions should not have been left out of the demonstration?) This behavior is simply narcissistic paranoia.

The May 11 Post-Gazette article offers a more proper perspective:
Robert D. Richards, a professor of First Amendment studies at Penn State University and founding director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment, said the bishop was “off the mark” in his description of the First Amendment.

He cited the example of protections given to the Westboro Baptist Church, a group that has received criticism for its protests at soldiers’ funerals.

“The bishop’s interpretation of the First Amendment is entirely inconsistent with the law,” Mr. Richards said. “In fact, some of the very things he mentioned in the statement are exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect.”
Actually, since most decent people aren’t too kindly disposed to the Westboro Baptist Church—certainly, I’m not a fan—it is perhaps more helpful to think about the Muhammad cartoons controversy of 2005 and 2006. Over 200 people died in protests over cartoons published by a Danish newspaper seen as critical of Islam. Americans widely viewed the Muslim reaction as unjustified, uncivilized, even. Bishop Zubik should think about that.

On-line, my letter elicited some interesting comments. I thought the following, from Bill Helwig, was the most insightful (I’ve cleaned up obvious mistakes; you can see the original text below my letter on the Post-Gazette site):
The nudity was the stroke of genius. Because of the nudity the work got far more attention than it otherwise might have. I don’t see how Diane [an earlier commenter who dismissed the relevance of nudity] could possibly suggest that the nudity did not have any principled application to her theme. She had a cross shaved into her hairs. How plain a statement can you make? It directly relates to the theme of the work. The cross is a symbol of the Church; the Church wants to dictate how women can use their body.
John Muir offered this observation:
This girl was not involved in some Mardi Gras-esque orgy of indecent exposure. It was a protest. She called attention to her pubic hair (which contained a symbolic message), not her genitalia.
Interesting. A male could not have made a similar statement without exposing his genitalia.

The ACLU has shown some interest in Ms. O’Connor’s plight. I hope it can help her escape a conviction.

Update, 6/11/2013: The two CMU students did not quite get off scot-free. They agreed to a deal yesterday that will require them each to perform 80 hours of community service. See my post “Pope Girl Update.”


  1. Some observations: Every religion makes rules about how adherents are permitted (or not) to use their bodies - all body parts, not just genitalia. Use of her pubic area was for shock value, nothing more. She would have made her point with a large sign, but it would also have gone unnoticed. This episode is hardly worth dragging out the Constitution. Leaving religion and any laws out of it, her display was, although clever, just in poor taste. Most jokes at another's expense are.
    On another note, we have the same last name - Deimel.

    1. Neither good taste nor significance is required to enjoy the benefits of the First Amendment. We can quibble about whether Ms. O’Connor was right. (Personally, I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.) What is important is that Bishop Zubik (and those who think as he does) is wrong.

  2. On-line, my letter elicited some interesting comments. I thought the following, from Bill Helwig, was the most insightful (I’ve cleaned up obvious mistakes; you can see the original text below my letter on the Post-Gazette site):


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