Cheney Speech Prompts Protests at BYU Not everyone at Brigham Young University is happy to have Vice President Dick Cheney as a commencement speaker. Student and faculty protests are growing. Given the school's inherent conservatism, it's a surprising development.
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Cheney Speech Prompts Protests at BYU

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Cheney Speech Prompts Protests at BYU

Cheney Speech Prompts Protests at BYU

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A spokeswoman for the Dick Cheney says the vice president is still looking forward to a commencement speech in three weeks at Brigham Young University in Utah. That despite growing protests from some students, faculty, and alumni who say Cheney's record as vice president makes him a poor choice for the event. The protests are surprising given the conservatism of the school, the church that owns it, and the surrounding county and state.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: Brigham Young University is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormon or LDS Church. And at BYU's Provo, Utah, campus yesterday, well, some things didn't seem quite right. It was the gathering of college Republicans.

Unidentified Man: The letter right here - two sentences, all it is is thanking Vice President Cheney for his time to come out and speak to us.

BERKES: Now instead of Republican red, the t-shirts, headbands and armbands worn by the vice president's supporters were blue - a school color that is also connected with Democrats. And over at the gathering of college Democrats…

Unidentified Woman #1: Keep it positive. And keep it about politics. Thank you.

BERKES: T-shirts, headbands and armbands were not Democratic blue. They were white, the other school color, which is also associated with surrender. That's a common feeling for Democrats in overwhelmingly Republican Utah, which seems like a strange setting for an anti-Dick Cheney protest.

Kelly Patterson is a BYU political scientist.

Professor KELLY PATTERSON (Political Science, Brigham Young University): The university is nestled in a conservative county and a conservative state. And LDS voters, in statewide polls, in the national polls, have shown a disposition towards conservative voting in support for the president over time, as well.

BERKES: And there's the sedate nature of the protest: No speeches, no slogans, no shouting, no personal attacks, no mention of religious leaders and no criticism of the school, but signs were permitted.

Ms. STEPHANIE MARQUEZ(ph) (Student, Brigham Young University): Our sign says, you lied, they died. And it's a mural of all these soldiers or military personnel that has died in Iraq.

BERKES: Stephanie Marquez is a junior from California majoring in Latin American studies.

Ms. MARQUEZ: My main concern is that BYU has always maintained political neutrality. And I feel like Cheney coming to speak at our commencement is a way of endorsing the Bush administration.

BERKES: This was a popular theme at the protest. And it was one addressed by BYU's spokeswoman, Carri Jenkins.

Ms. CARRI JENKINS (Spokeswoman, Brigham Young University): Of course, this is not a political discussion. The vice president's office has made it very clear that it would not be a political address. It would be an address directed toward the graduates, giving them encouragements and advice as they go forward in their lives.

BERKES: Another common theme was what some protesters consider a mismatch between the values of their school and faith and the values they perceive in the vice president. Warner Woodworth is a Mormon and Republican and a professor of organizational strategy at BYU.

Professor WARNER WOODWORTH (Organizational Strategy, Brigham Young University): My concern is the example Cheney sets. There's a long list of stuff he said that's untrue. I just think we shouldn't go to the lowest common denominator. We ought to be reaching for superb examples. And we ought to have graduation speakers that are the best choices out there in terms of values and ethics and moral responsibility and personal commitment to good principles.

BERKES: Mormon Church spokesman Mike Otterson responded that truth could prove to be a tough standard when bringing politicians to campus.

Mr. MIKE OTTERSON (Director of Media Relations, LDS Church): You have to simply accept at some point that you're inviting people who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. And whatever their standards are is a matter for them to take care of. But I don't think we can become so self-righteous that we expect everyone to live as we think they should live in order to qualify as a visitor to the university.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you. No problem. What are friends for?

Unidentified Woman #2: Holding down paper, of course.

BERKES: At the college Republican rally, one student held the flapping corners of a massive blue banner while others signed their names. It welcomes the vice president. Now here's the oddest thing of all, Dick Cheney as commencement speaker was not something Brigham Young University sought. The vice president's office called and suggested an invitation. Perhaps staffers figure Provo, Utah, would be friendly territory, free of protesters. If so, they were wrong.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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