Journalism That Matters: Justice Served at Notre Dame

EDITORIAL: A newspaper on campus at the University of Notre Dame won an important freedom-of-speech decision against a university professor who advocated for abortion rights.

The golden dome atop the main building at the University of Notre Dame.
The golden dome atop the main building at the University of Notre Dame. (photo: RebeccaDLev / Shutterstock)

The final score: Faithfully Catholic University of Notre Dame student journalists, 1; entitled pro-abortion Notre Dame professor, 0.

This outcome is the gratifying conclusion to the frivolous defamation lawsuit that Tamara Kay filed last May against the intrepid staff of The Irish Rover, a campus newspaper, dedicated to upholding the university’s Catholic identity, that publishes reports about campus activities that conflict with this identity.

So why did Kay, a sociologist who teaches at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, file her legal action against the plucky student-run publication? To seek retribution against the Rover staff for publishing a pair of articles about her in October 2022 and March 2023. The articles in question accurately detailed Kay’s strident abortion-rights advocacy, both on and off campus, as well as some recent efforts to facilitate abortion access for Notre Dame students.

Throughout her academic tenure at Notre Dame, Kay has openly styled herself as an abortion-rights champion. But since pro-abortion perspectives are often commonplace among faculty in some of Notre Dame’s academic departments, this long-standing ideological orientation wasn’t what drew the Rover’s attention when classes resumed in September 2022, three months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision struck down legal abortion’s constitutional framework.

Instead, it was the dramatic post-Dobbs escalation of Kay’s abortion activism that led to the Rover’s reporting. This notably included online postings advising residents of Indiana — where a state law banning most abortions was enacted in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court decision — about sites where they could source abortion pills. Further, the professor had posted information on the door of her Notre Dame office that appeared to identify it as a location where students could find help in seeking abortions.

Ahead of the Rover’s initial October 2022 report on these activities, criticism by other parties had already induced Kay to begin scaling back some of the more overt activism being conducted via her Notre Dame professorship. But she subsequently complained to Notre Dame’s administration, as well as to sympathetic media outlets, that the pushback by the Rover and others against her words and actions constituted a coordinated attack against her academic freedom.

To their credit, administration officials retorted that her academic freedom hadn’t been restricted at all and that she shouldn’t expect to evade criticism for articulating pro-abortion beliefs from her privileged position on a Catholic campus, given that these beliefs totally contradict Church teachings about the sanctity of unborn human life.

After the Rover published a second article in March 2023 reporting on Kay’s comments at another event at Notre Dame, Kay filed her defamation suit. It articulated a hodgepodge of claims, accusing the student newspaper of misrepresenting her in both articles and supposedly harming her in a variety of ways as a result. Unintimidated, the Rover refused to retract any of its reporting.

And when the case was adjudicated, it was a legal shutout in favor of the Rover. In his Jan. 8 decision upholding the defendants’ right to free speech and dismissing all of Kay’s allegations, St. Joseph County senior Judge Steven David concisely enumerated the reasons why her claims were comprehensively bogus:

“Because the Court has found that the alleged defamatory statements were true, within the meaning of the law, not made with actual malice, did not contain a defamatory inference, and there were no damages that were causally linked to The Irish Rover Articles, Dr. Kay’s defamation claim fails and the statements in the Articles were lawful.” 

This slam-dunk court win is certainly cause for celebration, even if the celebration must be somewhat qualified due to the unfortunate reality that Kay’s pro-abortion views might be more popular on Notre Dame’s campus than the staunchly Catholic views articulated by the student newspaper. Indeed, it’s a sad testimony to the current state of affairs academically that a professor at one of the nation’s leading Catholic universities believes she possesses an unchallengeable right to express her pro-abortion beliefs without rebuke — and that she’s entitled to try to weaponize a secular court against students brave enough to speak up about what she is doing. 

What about their academic freedom, professor Kay? Why isn’t their right to speak every bit as important as your own?

As the Rover noted in the editorial it published following the court decision, “In filing and pursuing this lawsuit over the course of the last year, Kay attempted to silence and intimidate undergraduate students at her own university for accurate reporting on her public comments. We hope that this ruling will serve to discourage such efforts to chill free speech in the future and invigorate others to courageously exercise their right to freedom of speech in pursuit of the truth.”

At a minimum, Kay’s glaring hypocrisy alongside of her blatant support for abortion ought to prompt Notre Dame’s senior leadership to publicly applaud The Irish Rover’s vindication in court. In light of the university’s long-standing timidity about reining in the excesses of its faculty progressives, however, that’s highly unlikely to happen. 

Nevertheless, given the predominance of progressive views at the large majority of secular American universities, as well as at many U.S. Catholic colleges, the outcome at Notre Dame represents a significant free-speech victory for views that don’t conform with contemporary campus orthodoxies. 

It’s also a pointed reminder about the value of fearless investigative journalism, in terms of bringing unacceptable activities to light and helping to correct them.

That’s the kind of journalism that really counts, and the members of the Rover staff are to be highly commended for their collective good work.

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