Students and faculty at Brigham Young University (BYU) are not known for political protests, especially those aimed at U.S. Presidents and their administrations. The Provo, Utah, school is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. And the Church, the school and the surrounding county and state are strongly identified with conservative ideals and support for President Bush.
"The University is nestled in a conservative county in a conservative state," notes Kelly Patterson, director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "And (Mormon) voters in statewide polls and national polls have shown a disposition toward conservative voting and support for the president over time, as well."
That may be why staffers for Vice President Dick Cheney called BYU and offered Mr. Cheney as a commencement speaker. The Vice President is giving just two commencement addresses this year. One is at West Point. It seems BYU and Utah would be a safe place for the second, a place free from protest.
But, hundreds of BYU students, faculty and alumni find a Cheney commencement speech disconcerting. They've been signing an on-line petition and they organized a rare campus demonstration, in which speeches, shouting, slogans, marching, personal attacks and criticism of BYU and the Mormon Church were prohibited. BYU's College Democrats, a campus club, organized the protest and agreed to the restrictions.
"The College Democrats have agreed to keep it tame," explained Richard Davis, a BYU professor of Political Science and faculty adviser for the club. The students agreed "not to be riotous or disrespectful … or even say anything. It was not (designed to include) speechmaking."
In fact, the only speech at the April 4th demonstration was one outlining the code of conduct. More than 200 students gathered on the concrete of a University quad. They wore white shirts, headbands and armbands. Ropes and tape on the walkway kept them corralled. Campus security guards scrutinized their signs for propriety and they and protest organizers asked some students to take down their signs.
Kirby Snideman, a senior majoring in Agricultural Management, had held a sign with photographs of Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley and Vice President Dick Cheney. "Prophet vs. Profit" was scrawled across the sign, a reference to the money made from Iraq war contracts by Halliburton, Mr. Cheney's former employer. Snideman was asked to remove the sign. He complied, begrudgingly.
"Here's a man who I believe has done some very corruptible things," Snideman said. "And he's going to be giving my commencement speech. In the past we've had religious leaders that give us advice and counsel about what we're supposed to do with the rest of our lives. And I'm supposed to hear that from a man who I believe has been very questionable in his dealings? There's a big conflict there."
Warner Woodworth, a professor of Organization Strategy and Leadership, has similar concerns, based on "…the example Cheney sets. There's a long list of stuff he's said that's untrue. We ought to have graduate speakers that are the best choices out there in terms of values and ethics and moral responsibility and personal commitment to good principles."
That standard might make it difficult to find suitable campus speakers, especially among politicians, suggests Mike Otterson, spokesman for Mormon leaders.
"You have to accept at some point that you are inviting people who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and … their standards are a matter for them to take care of. I don't think we can become so self-righteous that we can expect everyone to live as we think they should live in order to qualify as a visitor to the University."
BYU Junior Stephanie Marquez, a Latin American Studies major, held up a sign that said, "You lied. They died," a reference to discredited reports about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The sign included a mosaic of the faces of every member of the military killed in Iraq.
"My main concern is that BYU has always maintained political neutrality," Marquez said. "I feel like Cheney coming to speak at our commencement is a way of endorsing the Bush Administration."
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins says the school and the Mormon Church strictly adhere to a policy of political neutrality. She doesn't see the Cheney speech as a problem.
"This is not a political discussion," Jenkins insists. "The Vice President's office has made it very clear that it would not be a political address. It will be an address … giving (graduates) encouragement and advice as they go forward in their lives."
Jenkins adds that BYU will not withdraw the commencement invitation the Vice President's office requested. "It is an honor to have the Vice President with us."
Mister Cheney is still planning to visit, according to his spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride. That cheered the College Republicans who gathered on another BYU quad to counter the protesting Democrats.
"We want to give him a warm welcome and let him know he's among friends," said Joshua Daniels, a senior in Political Science, as he urged supporters to sign a massive blue welcome sign.
BYU officials have yet to say whether they'll permit another protest when the Vice President speaks at commencement April 26.