Star Parker is a bestselling author who travels the country speaking to young audiences about the harmful impact of abortion, especially in minority communities. What better place than the University of St. Thomas -- an urban, Catholic campus -- for this dynamic African-American woman to bring her prolife message?
For almost two months, St. Thomas' Students for Human Life organization looked forward to sponsoring Parker's planned appearance on campus April 21. Her fee was to be split by the St. Thomas Standard, a conservative student newspaper, and the Young America's Foundation, a Herndon, Va., group that brings conservative speakers and ideas to college campuses.
Students for Human Life applied to the university's Student Life Committee for a campus site where Parker could speak. But the committee turned thumbs down. Star Parker, it seems, was not welcome at St. Thomas.
Katie Kieffer, an alumna who helped plan Parker's visit, says that Vice President for Student Affairs Jane Canney, who oversees the committee, blocked the way. "She told me, 'As long as I'm a vice president at St. Thomas, we will not deal with Young America's Foundation,'" said Kieffer.
Canney did not return a call seeking comment. But Doug Hennes, a spokesman for St. Thomas, confirmed that those were Canney's words. On Thursday, the university released a statement that it "was not comfortable in allowing the Young America's Foundation to be involved with the Parker event."
"The foundation paid for commentator Ann Coulter to speak at St. Thomas in 2005, and her remarks were considered highly inflammatory and disrespectful to the mission and values of the university," the statement said.
Ann Coulter is a well-known firebrand. But Star Parker? What's the university afraid of if she speaks?
On Friday morning, Hennes did not elaborate on the statement that St. Thomas would refuse to permit any YAF-affiliated speaker to set foot on campus. "We're not comfortable. It's that simple," he said.
On Friday afternoon, however, Hennes called with a "clarification."
"We're always willing to look at the possibility of collaborating with outside organizations, including YAF," he said. "If they approach us with another speaker in the future, we'd consider it, but the speaker must be willing to conform with all the things in our contract, including the behavior or 'subject matter' clause," which bars obscenities, racial slurs and other derogatory language.
And Star Parker? "We're past the issue of Parker, given the time factor," said Hennes. "That issue is moot."
Parker -- president of the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education and a regular commentator on CNN, Fox News and the BBC -- was incredulous at St. Thomas' initial decision to ban YAF.
"I've spoken on over 150 campuses," she said. "I've never been treated like this. Is St. Thomas saying that all conservative speakers are alike? Are they saying that because one conservative speaker said things they don't like, they won't deal with any speaker sponsored by YAF?"
"We've got to move away from that kind of prejudice and stereotyping," she said.
St. Thomas seems comfortable with speakers from the liberal side of the political spectrum. In 2007, for example, the school hosted DFL senatorial candidate and satirist Al Franken, who is known for harsh attacks and raised eyebrows in January at Carleton College for mocking the speech and gestures of a conservative student. Last year, the university also showcased transgender activist Debra Davis, a former male high school librarian who "transitioned," as she says on her website, to the female gender and now speaks nationally about the experience.
In 2006, James Fetzer, a University of Minnesota Duluth professor and 9/11 conspiracy theorist, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd under the auspices of the St. Thomas Justice and Peace Studies program. "The attacks of September 11 were orchestrated on the American people by their own government," he told the audience, according to the Aquin newspaper at the university.
St. Thomas opens its arms to folks like these but appears to have serious qualms about YAF speakers. YAF works with more than 100 prominent conservative figures, including William Bennett, Harvard Prof. Harvey Mansfield, and commentators John Stossel and Michael Medved. According to Kieffer, differential treatment of YAF and its speakers by St. Thomas would cripple students' ability to bring big-name conservatives such as these to campus.
"This 'clarification' by Doug Hennes is not sufficient," she said. "It suggests broad and vague restrictions that impose special rules for conservative students. We need written assurance of equal treatment."
In 2007, St. Thomas got egg on its face when it rejected an opportunity to invite Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak on grounds that his appearance would offend the Twin Cities Jewish community. Later, the university reversed itself, but Tutu spurned its offer. Instead, he spoke here last week under the auspices of Metropolitan State University.
Parker won't be so easily dissuaded. "I've got St. Thomas on my calendar, and I plan to come on April 21," she said. "If they won't let me on campus, I'm willing to talk out on the street."