About 100 students quietly walked out of their commencement ceremony at the University of Notre Dame on Sunday, in protest against the event's main speaker, Vice President Mike Pence. The demonstration at the Catholic University was the peaceful culmination of months of planning after the school announced the speech by the vice president and former governor of Indiana.
“The participation and degree-conferring of VP Pence stand as an endorsement of policies and actions which directly contradict Catholic social teachings and values and target vulnerable members of the University’s community,” undergraduate student Xitlaly Estrada said in a press release from We Stand for ND, the group that organized the protest.
"Pence’s policies have marginalized our vulnerable sisters and brothers for their religion, skin color, or sexual orientation," reads another statement on the group's website. "We will walk out in silence, with respect for the human dignity of those with whom we disagree and with an invitation to the rest of the community to build an inclusive future together."
According to the Indy Star, We Stand for ND spoke to the Notre Dame police chief to assure the most peaceful exit from the event. They urged students to stand up as Pence began his speech and walk away "quietly, in confidence, with your head up high, taking your time. Embrace the moment, maybe even hold hands/lock arms with those joining you." They walked through a specified exit and met outside the stadium, where a fellow student led them in their own turning of the tassel ceremony. They knew in advance that they would not be allowed back inside.
The University of Notre Dame has a long tradition of inviting presidents to give a commencement speech in the year of their inauguration, and six past presidents have accepted. President Barack Obama gave the address in 2009, despite anti-abortion protesters and threats of boycotting the ceremony.
Pence gave another commencement speech on Saturday, at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. The Washington Post reports that there were many similarities between his speech at that small liberal arts school and at Notre Dame, including a part in which he asked the students to stand up and "catch the eye of a loved one’s in the crowd." He did not acknowledge the protesters on Sunday.
This protest wasn't as loud and disruptive as the one Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos received earlier this month at Bethune-Cookman University, where students booed her and turned their backs on her speech.