George W. Bush came to Columbus on June 14 for Ohio State’s commencement, and university administrators made sure he wouldn’t hear any criticism.
At rehearsal and right as the ceremony began, a school administrator, Richard Hollingsworth, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, warned that any protesters would be kicked out and arrested. Some students said they were told they would be denied their diplomas if they protested.
(The story of the suppression of the OSU protest was broken in the left media by [email protected] and by FAIR.)
The university was responding to a planned silent protest by a group calling itself Turn Your Back on Bush.
Hillary Tinapple, a graduating senior, was one of the organizers of the group.
“I was quite upset ever since I read in the campus paper that Bush had been invited to speak at my graduation,” she wrote on the group’s web site (turnyourbackonbush.com). “That man signifies everything that is wrong in this nation: the abuse of power, the privatization of profit and the socialization of burdens, the destruction and dismantling of what I call progress without any consideration of the consequences, but most especially the Bush Administration’s foreign policy and actions around the 9-11 issues. I am a member of the Green Party, and a passionate community activist, so of course my gut response was that something HAD to be done to show we do not approve.”
She called an emergency meeting, and she “was excited about seeing new faces in the group,” she wrote.
“About forty folks came to the first planning/brainstorming meeting, and about thirty came to the next one,” she told The Progressive.
They decided to turn their backs when the President spoke.
But the threat from the administration “changed the whole feeling of the protest,” she wrote, and scared off many students.
She told The Progressive that Hollingsworth warned them “he knew about the web site, and that if you do not cooperate, you could be arrested, and if you are arrested, then you would not graduate.”
Hollingsworth did not return The Progressive’s phone call for comment.
But Randy Dunham, an assistant director of media relations at Ohio State, says the threat to withhold diplomas from protesters was “an urban myth. Somebody took a statement out of context completely. What was said at commencement was anyone who attempts to block the hearing or view of others would be removed from the stadium and subject to arrest.”
I asked Dunham why a silent protest would warrant an arrest. “If they blocked the view of others” it would be justified, he says.
Tinapple says “four graduates and about ten others” participated in the protest. “At that point , it became more about my freedom of expression as an individual than any single issue about the Bush Administration,” she wrote on her web site.
But Dunham says, “This should not have been a political event. The President’s speech wasn’t about politics. It was about voluntarism.”
For the record, the President, who happens to be a political figure, did talk about subjects other than voluntarism.
“We are called to defend liberty against tyranny and terror,” Bush said. “We’ve answered that call. We will bring security to our people and justice to our enemies … Our nation is the greatest force for good in history.”
“Eight people turned their backs, and none were arrested,” says Dunham. “That leaves 59,992 who seemed pretty pleased.”
While none of the protesters were formally arrested, the police reportedly did eject at least one of them from the ceremony and threatened him with arrest. Jeff, who is identified as an OSU alumnus on the group’s web site, wrote: “I saw one of Columbus’s Finest heading our way … We were being led out of Ohio Stadium. To the officer’s credit, he realized there was a three-year-old in my arms and was not at all hostile. I asked him if I was under arrest, and he did not answer me. When we reached the exit … he told me we were being charged with disturbing the peace. If we chose to leave, the charges would be dropped immediately. With our daughter in mind, we chose not to fight it … On this day, June 14th, 2002, I came to the realization that we no longer live in a free society.”
Yoshie Furuhashi, a lecturer in the English at Ohio State, was also one of the organizers of the protest. Her conclusion: “The police and the OSU administration didn’t respect our rights to free speech and free assembly at all,” she wrote on the group’s web site.
Furuhashi told The Progressive that some of the protesters are in touch with the Ohio Civil Liberties Union to see what legal recourse they might have.
“There was no need for them to clamp down on free speech,” says Joseph Levine, a philosophy professor at Ohio State who joined several dozen protesters outside the ceremony that day. “They knew pretty well what was planned. There was nothing especially disruptive about that. This was an attempt to really put a chill on protest activity.”
Matt Rothschild is the editor-in-chief of The Progressive.
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