Graduation is a shining moment, a culmination of years of hard work. However, Notre Dame’s spring 2017 commencement took a different note. Vice President Pence was taking the podium following his reception of an honorary degree when students stood up. It was once the speech’s delivery began that they walked out, leaving their own graduation. Outside, these students gathered and partook in an alternative graduation ceremony, sans VP Pence.
According to Notre Dame’s report, approximately 100 students walked out of the ceremony.
The walkout was in protest of Pence’s conservative views. The actions were planned prior to the ceremony by an activist group named We Stand For. They oppose Pence because they fight for the marginalized individuals targeted by his policies (both as VP and as former governor of Indiana, the state in which Notre Dame is located).
Pence’s speech had controversial quotes. He told the crowd that their university is a “vanguard of freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.” He went on to claim that the use of safe spaces and politically correct language is limiting of free speech. He said, “These practices are destructive of learning and the pursuit of knowledge.”
A graduating student was interviewed by CNN about why he chose to walk out of the ceremony. The student, Bryan Ricketts, said, “Personally, I know Mike Pence's policies from his time as governor, when he tried to implement RFRA (The Religious Freedom Restoration Act) without civil rights protections for LGBTQ people. As a gay man, this directly impacted me. However, many graduates here have been directly targeted by other policies--for example, those students and their families who are undocumented and who risk deportation to celebrate this milestone in their lives.”
Another student did note that there needs to be communication between people subscribing to different beliefs. “However, it is an egregious insult to invite Pence to speak at the celebration of the accomplishments of university graduates, many of whom are LGBTQ, first-generation, low-income, and people of color he has actively supported legislation against,” said the student, Jenn Cha.
A faculty member of the university took to Twitter to say her part:
From a Notre Dame faculty member re: the students who walked out during Mike Pence's commencement speech: pic.twitter.com/nF5zrxn35Z— Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen) May 21, 2017
Peterson correctly identifies that it is the students’ right to walk out, as a form of their freedom of speech and right to protest.
VP Pence is not the first to receive this sort of treatment during a commencement speech. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced booing and turned backs during her speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black educational institution.
Pence is the first vice president to deliver a commencement speech at Notre Dame. As a student, he received his bachelor’s degree from Hanover College and attended Indiana University School of Law.