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R.I. Students Protest Suspension

March 16, 2000

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ About 50 college students gathered Thursday to protest what they called a violation of free speech involving an abortion-rights flier that used the image of the Virgin Mary.

Three of their fellow students at Providence College used the flier, which read: ``How’s this for an immaculate concept: Keep Abortion Safe and Legal,″ to spark a debate on the Catholic campus.

But their action came at a price: They have been suspended for the rest of the semester.

In response, about 50 angry students congregated for a silent protest outside the school’s administration building, carrying signs with messages like, ``The first amendment does not stop at the gates of PC. Protect your rights.″ and ``Do I pay for you to oppress me?″

``We’re speaking to our right to free speech and to protest the administration’s action,″ said sophomore Devan Chase, 20.

Edgar Pastrana, whose brother Daniel is one of the suspended students, said the incident has cost his brother a full tuition scholarship.

``He’s crushed, devastated. He’s really shocked and appalled,″ said Pastrana, of Stratford, Conn., 18.

One professor criticized the school, saying it should have used the opportunity to explain to the students why people were offended by what they did, instead of suspending them.

``We’re supposed to be here to share ideas and debate,″ said John Colby, who teaches psychology. ``We’re providing for the opportunity for people to express different points of view. It’s not as though they committed some crime.″

Among the protesters was a student who supported the administration’s decision.

``The right to free speech is not all encompassing,″ said junior Stephanie Fitzgerald, 20.

``The fliers themselves were a defamation of the image of the Virgin Mary. It’s a Catholic institution’s duty to uphold the teachings of the faith.″

The three students were posting the notices on a classroom door last month when a priest who teaches theology arrived to prepare for a lecture. He ordered them to stop and reported the incident to administrators.

Along with senior Daniel Pastrana, junior Patrick Moran and sophomore Christopher White were suspended last month.

The Rev. Philip Smith, the college president, called the flier a ``deliberate misuse of a venerated person.″

The school released a statement Thursday in response to the protest, calling the flier deplorable.

``The deliberate misuse of the image of the Blessed Virgin ... cannot be defended under the guise of ’free speech,‴ the school said. ``We don’t dispute their opinion, but rather how it was expressed.″

In a letter to the college newspaper, the students wrote that the flier was meant to shock, not insult. ``We hoped that the explicit nature of the imagery would add a more personal dimension to the issue,″ they wrote.

Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Rhode Island, said any legal challenge to the punishment would probably fail since the First Amendment does not apply to private colleges.

Providence College is a liberal arts school where more than 80 percent of the 3,700 students are Roman Catholic and many Dominican friars and nuns are on the faculty.

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