About 50 students protested the selection of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R–Ohio) as keynote speaker at the University Law School’s commencement ceremony on May 7 by walking out during his address.
While choosing Portman as commencement speaker generated an outcry from members of the campus community, Law School Dean Evan Caminker said the event can be used as a way to enhance conversation and cooperation among students and members of the University administration in the future.
According to Andrew Selbst — a recent Law School graduate and principal organizer of the walkout — students protested Portman so strongly because he is not a supporter of gay rights and is openly against gay marriage.
Selbst said that the protest was done in a respectful manner that still effectively demonstrated their disapproval, and that students met in the hallway after they walked out in a gathering that was “very celebratory” and “emotional.”
“We got up silently, walked out, we wanted to be the least disruptive as possible,” he said. “We didn’t want to try to ruin graduation for anyone. We definitely made our point.”
Selbst added that in the future students should be actively involved in choosing speakers, adding that the protest aimed to make a statement to the Law School administration that LGBT issues should not be a point of contention.
“The point of the protest was really targeted towards the administration,” he said. “It was saying that the legal community has moved pass the point where LGBT rights are just another thing to disagree on, and instead saying that this is not up for debate with the next generation of lawyers.”
Selbst said that prior to the commencement services, students sent a letter of petition to members of the Law School’s administration asking them to recall Portman as speaker, to which Law School Dean Evan Caminker replied with two e-mails to students.
In an e-mail interview with The Michigan Daily, Caminker said students protested because of their concerns over Portman’s voting record in regards to gay rights as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993-2004.
In defense of Portman, Caminker wrote that other news sources have reported erroneous information regarding the commencement walkout.
“We’ve seen a lot of very inaccurate information in various public blogs and reports,” Caminker wrote. “For example, some described Senator Portman as an active and vocal opponent of gay rights — whereas, to my knowledge and based on extensive research, he has never spoken out on these issues at all.”
Caminker added that a lot of sources misreported the actual number of students that participated in the protest.
“Some of the stories significantly overestimated the number of graduating students who participated in the walkout — the correct number is around 50,” he wrote. “Just under 50 graduating students, out of just over 300, walked out and were joined by some friends and family.”
The walkout did not interfere with commencement services, and students participating in the walkout were civil and received no form punishment since they “were exercising a First Amendment right of free expression and did so in a peaceful and orderly way,” Caminker wrote.
Caminker added that he met individually with students or groups who expressed concern over choosing Portman as speaker or who sent petitions to him.
“I received letters signed by a group of students who were disappointed with my selection,” he wrote. “I engaged in conversation with many of our students individually, and I also met with a group of about 45 students to talk about the issues in greater depth.”
According to Caminker, Portman had a chance to speak with students of the LGBT community before the commencement ceremony to hear their concerns, in which they had a “very honest, respectful conversation.”
“Senator Portman said he appreciated the opportunity to hear from the students directly, and the students expressed their respect for his agreement to meet with them and listen to their views,” Caminker wrote.
Caminker added that Portman commented on the walkout during his address by illustrating that it was an example of students exercising their freedom of speech, a right he feels important for all citizens.
“In Senator Portman’s commencement remarks, he underscored the important role that lawyers serve to uphold the rule of law, including important tenets such as the First Amendment,” Caminker wrote.
According to Caminker, the walkout has opened the door to new erudition for the University.
“The internal conversations that were sparked within the student body, with me, and with Senator Portman created an important learning moment for many members of the community,” Caminker wrote. “This all strikes me as consistent with the mission of our great public University.”
Caminker wrote the situation was a valuable experience as it taught him how to effectively communicate with students and the importance of keeping “the channels of communication open.”
In the e-mail he sent to the graduating students, Caminker apologized for any “distress” that the selection may have caused.
“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,” he wrote. “Anything less would undermine the Law School’s core values.”