By Tara Cavanaugh
Students at the University of Michigan’s Law School are protesting the selection of their commencement speaker, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, because of his opposition to gay rights.
The law school announced on April 12 that Portman would be the featured speaker at its graduation ceremony this spring. On April 14, 98 graduating students sent a letter to Law School Dean Evan Caminker to express their “profound disappointment” with Portman’s selection, and another 200 first- and second-year law students sent a similar letter to the dean on April 15.
“Michigan Law prides itself on its commitment to diversity and tolerance,” the 98 graduating students wrote. “While we do not wish to silence debate nor to categorically deny individuals with anti-gay politics any opportunity to speak at the law school, we believe that (the) decision to host a (graduation) speaker who is openly hostile to LGBT rights is deeply unfair to the LGBT students who will be in the audience this year celebrating their graduation.” The students urged the dean to reconsider his choice and rescind the invitation.
Portman, a U-M law school graduate, has a voting record that the 298 students dislike. As a U.S. Representative, Portman voted for a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriage in 2004. Portman also voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in other states, in 1996. (The Obama administration has since deemed the act unconstitutional.) And in 1999, he voted to bar same-sex couples in Washington, D.C. from adopting children.
Sarah St. Vincent, a graduating law student who is the media contact for the group of students who are organizing the opposition efforts, said some U-M law students have also sent personal letters to Portman asking him not to speak at their graduation ceremony. St. Vincent said some Ohio university students, who have expressed their support of the group by writing personal letters to Portman, have contacted the group as well. St. Vincent also said the group received a letter of support on April 21 from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans Queer Youth and Student Organisation, an NGO based in Brussels.
A group of alumni has also expressed support in an open letter, viewable online, to Dean Caminker.
“The choice of Senator Portman as speaker for this occasion is antithetical to Michigan Law’s long civil rights legacy,” the letter says. “Senator Portman, in his public life, has actively worked to deny some members of the graduating class their civil rights.”
The alumni write in their letter that they do not wish to ban anti-gay speakers at the school, but Portman’s invitation “is hurtful to those whose civil liberties (Portman) would deny, and embarrassing to members of Michigan Law’s community who care about upholding the character and image of the school.”
The Michigan Daily, U-M’s student newspaper, shared excerpts of an email Dean Caminker sent to the law school community about the issue.
“All the communication surrounding this issue has been thoughtful, and I respect our students’ conviction and outreach. I truly regret that this issue has caused members of our community distress in anticipation of what should be a celebratory day,” he wrote.
“We are deeply invested in the principle of diversity where a wide spectrum of perspectives is included. The Law School remains steadfast in its commitment to create a supportive environment for our LGBT community, and also to create an educational environment in which diverse viewpoints can be represented. Anything less would undermine the Law School’s core values.”
“Our graduating class is among the first of a generation that views equality based on sexual orientation as something more than an academic question on which people can agree to disagree,” Imran Syed, who graduates this year, wrote in an op-ed in The Michigan Daily on April 13. “We have been raised in a slightly more enlightened world, and count amongst our friends and colleagues many gay people who continue to face discrimination that is abhorrent to the spirit of constitutional protections afforded to all people.”
“There was a time when such discrimination was common, and acceptable,” Syed wrote. “That time has passed.”
U-M still plans for Portman to deliver the commencement speech May 7. St. Vincent said that the students are considering a few responses, including walking out.
Eric Felleman, one of the co-chairs of Outlaws, an LGBT student group at the law school, is working on purchasing rainbow-colored tassels and LGBT-supportive buttons to be worn at the graduation ceremony. “Already, close to 125 students and faculty members have ordered tassels. Many more are expected to wear buttons,” he wrote in an email to BTL.
“We look forward to working with the law school administration to improve the speaker selection process,” Felleman continued. “We hope that with increased student participation, future speakers will be more of a reflection of the values of the graduating class.”
“It is law school,” St. Vincent said. “The whole point is to debate and learn to respond to different points of view. That’s what we all do all day long. But at the same time there are just some points of view that we feel are objectively discriminatory and objectively not tolerable.”