By James David Dickson
Watch video of the student walkout at the graduation ceremony
ANN ARBOR: “Don’t open the doors!” the University of Michigan security official instructed her counterparts. “If they want to walk out on their own, fine, but don’t open the doors for them.”
Everyone at the U-M Law School’s May 7 graduation ceremony, also known as Senior Day, knew that a mass student walkout was coming when Ohio Sen. Rob Portman took the podium – they’d been told as much. Security at the school’s Hill Auditorium wouldn’t stop the students from walking out, but it wasn’t about to open the doors for them either.
Portman, a 1984 alum of the Michigan Law School, was invited last month to speak at Senior Day. It is something of a custom for Michigan Law grads who reach the heights in politics to be invited back. Last year’s commencement speaker was Michigan Law alum Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.
Andrew Selbst, a 2011 graduate of the Michigan Law School, emerged as the unofficial spokesperson for the protestors. When Portman was announced as commencement speaker, a number of the law school’s outgoing seniors planned to protest in some way, but it was unorganized, Selbst said. Eventually they settled on the silent protest, a walkout during Portman’s speech.
A small number of the graduates were invited to engage in a dialogue with Portman prior to the ceremony. While students were tight-lipped about what was discussed at the meeting, apparently it did little to squelch the planned walkout.
Days before the ceremony, Selbst told Between The Lines that he expected maybe 40 people to walk out of Portman’s speech; more than twice that did. So great was the urge for the protestors to turn their backs on Portman that they actually went ahead of their cue, Selbst said, taking a pause in Cormac Joseph Kerins’ introduction of the senator as their chance to leave the auditorium en masse and talk amongst themselves in the lobby.
In his opening remarks, Law School Dean Evan Caminker said that the law school would always be there to welcome its graduates home. Part of the purpose of Senior Day is to bring back Michigan Law grads who have been successful since leaving Ann Arbor. As he explained in a letter to the seniors on April 14, he said “We seek speakers who have achieved success and accomplishment in their professional careers, rather than speakers whose views are representative of all or a majority of the students at the law school.”
Caminker said the senator was a great example of where a Michigan Law degree can take a person: “anywhere.” Before being elected to the U.S. Senate in November 2010, Portman served as a Congressman and in 2005 was appointed U.S. Trade Representative and later the director of the Office of Management, both cabinet-level positions under President George W. Bush.
Bringing Portman back to Ann Arbor might be custom, but Selbst and others said it was unacceptable, given Portman’s votes against gay marriage and, more recently, gay adoption in Washington, D.C. A number of students who took part in the protest described gay marriage and gay adoption as human rights, as issues that don’t permit reasonable people to disagree.
Outside the Hill Auditorium guests attending Senior Day were handed a pamphlet explaining the coming protest. About 60 percent of the graduates wore rainbow buttons or flair on their gowns. Family and friends of the graduates wore the rainbow ribbon to show solidarity with grads who would be affected by Portman’s votes.
The pamphlet contained a letter from more than 200 Michigan Law alumni to Dean Caminker.
“Senator Portman, in public life, has actively worked to deny some members of the graduating class their civil rights … Our objection is not a political one … rather we are concerned about the message Michigan Law is sending by giving an anti-gay rights speaker the honor of marking what should be a joyful occasion,” the letter read.
Inside Hill, guests were handed the official program. Everything about it was normal – an image of the law school, the itinerary for the ceremony, the names of this year’s graduates – except for a baby-blue insert affirming both the right of the offended graduates to protest and the right of the senator to be heard without protestors “interfering unduly” by shouting him down.
“If the hosts of this event or University representatives believe that protestors are interfering unduly with a speaker’s freedom of expression, those protestors will be warned,” the letter admonished. “If the warnings are not heeded and the interference continues, then the individuals responsible may be removed from the building.”
There was no shout-down. When Caminker mentioned Portman briefly in his opening remarks, the crowd did not boo. When Portman was introduced to speak, the graduates filed out quietly, with no hooting or hollering. When Portman was done speaking and Matthew Jaret Budow, a class of 2011 graduate, was introduced, the seniors returned as quietly as they left.
“We wanted (the protest) to be dignified,” Selbst explained in the hallway as Portman spoke. He was joined by about 100 future lawyers from his graduating class. “The legal profession has always led the way in terms of civil rights. I’m proud to graduate with so many people who want to keep leading the way.”
Kaitlin Jackson, who is heading to New York to do public defense work after graduation, said that equal rights for the LGBT community is not just another debatable political issue. Jackson, who is a member of the LGBT community, did not attend the forum with Portman, preferring instead that this be a day of celebration. But she did walk out during Portman’s speech.
Ringo Vine, a 2011 graduate, is engaged to marry her partner and move to Arizona. She will practice immigration law with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We can’t get married in either of our home states, Minnesota or New York,” she said. Arizona, where the two are moving, poses another problem: It doesn’t allow for second-parent adoption. While Vine has a male friend who would be willing to father her child, her fiancee would have no rights to the child. She said that politicians who vote the way Portman does are part of the problem.
“I couldn’t imagine sitting there, smiling, and being honored by someone who would deny me the right to my civil, human, basic right to marry my partner and raise a family,” Vine said.