Emotions ran high on the Pepperdine campus this week after a law professor appeared in a television ad released Monday opposing same-sex marriage.
Law professor Richard Peterson appeared in a ProtectMarriage.com commercial urging California voters to “vote yes” on Proposition 8, which defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Voting yes would effectively place a ban on same-sex marriage in the state.
Peterson spoke throughout the commercial with “Pepperdine University School of Law” listed beneath his name. On Tuesday, administrators requested the reference to Pepperdine be removed from the ad. Administrators said the organization agreed, and they expect the Pepperdine reference to be removed by the end of the week.
“The ad seemed to convey not just a position held by the person, but that it appeared to many as representing the university's position,” Public Relations Director Jerry Derloshon wrote in an e-mail.
However, Peterson said he informed School of Law Vice Dean Tim Perrin in advance that he was appearing in the commercial and that he would be associated with Pepperdine. Perrin did not voice any concerns, according to Peterson.
“I don’t for any prideful reason feel like I need to have my name associated with the university and certainly would want to protect the university,” Peterson said. “If I felt that this would have even reflected poorly on the university, even if it was my right to speak out, I would not have done it.”
Peterson said he agreed to appear in the commercial after a request from Constitutional law professor Douglas Kmiec. Peterson said he was under the impression that Kmiec was originally going to appear in the ad, but had to speak at a conference out of town during the ad’s filming.
However, Kmiec said he was never selected for the ad and Peterson was selected by the organization based upon his expertise in family law.
Since his appearance in the ad, Peterson said he has received numerous “vicious” e-mails from viewers who feel he is anti-gay for advocating against same-sex marriage.
“I have compassion for people that feel hurt by this,” Peterson said. “If I regret anything, I regret anyone experiencing pain. If they knew me, they would know someone different than they described.”
Peterson said his appearance in the ad was not out of animus toward gays, but rather his objection to the California Supreme Court ruling in May. The court ruled Proposition 22 unconstitutional, thus lifting the ban on gay marriage put in place by voters in March 2000.
However, some students on campus were offended by Peterson’s appearance and took it to mean that Pepperdine endorsed the campaign against gay marriage.
Junior Alexander Pennekamp created a Facebook group Wednesday called “I'm Against Pepperdine's Decision to Endorse Prop 8.” The group objects to Peterson’s comments and the inclusion of Pepperdine’s name in the ad. By Wednesday night, the group had 119 members.
“Professor Peterson's advocacy of Proposition 8 shows an utter disregard for University procedures, which prohibit public endorsement of political issues,” Pennekamp wrote in an e-mail. “His actions stigmatize this university as a place where opposing ideas are not welcome, where students are alienated because of their ideals and where diversity ceases to exist.”
Upon learning of the university’s request to remove Pepperdine from the ad in a meeting with President Andrew K. Benton, Pennekamp transferred administrative duties of the group to Crystal Taylor, president of OUT, an unofficial student organization that supports alternative lifestyles. Although Pennekamp is no longer a group administrator, he said he does not regret creating the group and does not believe the group’s cause is illegitimate.
Taylor said she would consider changing the name of the Facebook group to “Pepperdine Students Opposed to Prop 8.” However, Facebook does not allow users to change group names after they are created.
“I understand now that Benton didn’t approve of [the ad] and he doesn’t want it,” Taylor said. “But honestly, [the administration] made [its] official stance when [it] said OUT couldn’t be on campus.”
While the Pepperdine administration does not take any official stance on political issues or support a single candidate for office, faculty members’ right to free expression is recognized and protected on campus, according to President Benton.
“As a matter of established policy, the university does not take positions on partisan political issues, including ballot initiatives,” Benton wrote in an e-mail. “Occasionally members of our community do become involved, but their relationship with Pepperdine should not be confused with a personal right to free expression.”
As the election season is heating up, political expression by faculty members is becoming a point of contention on some college campuses.
The appropriateness of professors expressing strong political views was questioned at the University of Illinois, where administrators recently informed faculty members that they are no longer permitted to wear partisan pins, place bumper stickers on their cars or attend political rallies on campus.
Pepperdine professors, however, say their right to political expression remains untouched in and out of the classroom. For instance, several faculty members are actively involved in McCain and Obama campaigns. [Please see “Professors Deserve Free Speech,” page A8.]
Kmiec is an informal adviser for the Obama campaign on matters of faith and has spoken to academic and public audiences on behalf of Obama several times. Dan Caldwell, a professor of political science, is a member of Veterans for Obama. Robert Kauffman, a professor at the School of Public Policy, has been an unofficial consultant to Joe Lieberman.
“It’s a remarkable thing for the University to have national candidates asking our faculty for advice and assistance,” Kmiec said.
In the classroom, professors also say they are free to express political opinions to their students.
“As far as my experience as a professor, I have received complete support from students and administrators and I’m speaking as someone who comes from a perspective and experience that [is] different from the perception of Pepperdine,” said Todd Bouldin, a professor of political science. “I’ve always been blessed to have colleagues and students who respect that.”
Students agree that professors should be able to express political opinions, within limits.
“I don’t have a problem with professors expressing their views, as long as they are respectful of the views of others, whether they are the same or not,” junior Grant Poliquin said. “Obviously, professors are more informed, but it’s still not fair for them to use that against students.”