Politicians lose law school graduation as forum

New Duquesne U. policy, president's ban on elected officials as speakers contrary to what's happening elsewhere

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The views of presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., are in big demand these days.

So are those of another likely presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and those of U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown.

Their ideologies differ, but they have something in common when it comes to the Duquesne University Law School commencement in June: As politicians, all have been deemed "inappropriate" to serve as graduation speakers.

Duquesne President Charles Dougherty's decision, based on a new university policy and concerns about partisanship and Catholic Church teachings, has sparked debate on campus and led to circulation of a petition in the law school by students unhappy with it.

It arose after Law School Dean Donald Guter sought the university's blessing to approach the three men and a fourth speaker, Alberto Mora, former general counsel with the U.S. Navy who is now working for Wal-Mart.

Dr. Dougherty approved only Mr. Mora, a 2006 recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.

In a letter this week to deans and other leaders on the campus, explaining his decision, Dr. Dougherty cited a policy enacted in June under which Duquesne generally avoids politicians at graduation ceremonies.

"I had two reasons for disapproving the politicians," Dr. Dougherty wrote. "First, I believe that a high-profile partisan political figure is inappropriate for a commencement speaker.

"Anyone of that description, including all three proposed, is sure to offend large numbers in the audience," he said.

"Even if such a speaker steers clear of political content, it makes a political statement that we provided them an occasion and a platform -- and one in which there is no possibility for dialogue or the expression of alternative points of view."

Dr. Dougherty also cited "the likelihood that some or all of these politicians have taken public positions on issues in opposition to Catholic Church teachings."

Dr. Dougherty said the move does not mean politicians are unwelcome on campus. He said he would encourage inviting the three politicians and others to speak at forums and other events "in which alternative views can be aired." He said a number have taken the school up on such an offer.

In years past, politicians have spoken to commencement audiences at Duquesne. Last year, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., addressed Duquesne's law school commencement.

Yesterday, spokeswoman Bridget Fare said the new commencement policy approved by Dr. Dougherty and campus vice presidents did not arise from any prior appearance by a politician.

She said exceptions can be made in cases like President Bush or Gov. Ed Rendell because, as holders of executive office, they by law "represent all of the constituents."

She declined to offer further examples and said reviews would be case by case.

Politicians routinely speak at commencements across the nation and in Western Pennsylvania.

Officials at the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University said yesterday they had no policy discouraging politicians at commencement. The same reply came from Carlow University, La Roche College and St. Vincent College, three other Catholic schools in the region.

St. Vincent has recently invited President Bush to speak at its upcoming commencement.

Sheldon Steinbach, a higher education law specialist and retired general counsel with the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education, said he'd never heard of such a restriction by a college in more than 30 years of following such issues.

He said distinguishing between politicians and executive officeholders as to speaker suitability "is a distinction without a difference." He said Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama in particular "are hot properties right now" as speakers.

"The university is the last bastion for the preservation of the marketplace of ideas," said Mr. Steinbach, senior counsel with the firm Dow Lohnes. "Precluding political leaders of any stripe from consideration seems to be narrow-minded."

Mr. Guter said he was unaware of the new policy when he began exploring possible speakers for the June 3 ceremony.

"I'm taking whatever blame I need to take for not knowing," he said.

He said the speakers were approached as to their availability on that date, but no actual invitation had been extended.

Ralph Gigliotti, a Duquesne senior and head of the Student Government Association, said he's heard from students on both sides of the debate.

He said those against the policy "are frustrated because a well-known speaker cannot come and speak." Those supporting the policy don't want to see situations where "speakers offend any of our graduates or alumni," he said.

The students circulating the petition could not be reached.

In pointing to other politicians' appearances, Dr. Dougherty cited the school's decision to allow former Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum to discuss the Bush administration's plans to change Social Security. He said the school invited Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle to present an opposing view a few weeks later.

And, he said, one of the speakers at an embryonic stem cell conference on campus several years back gave a presentation that opposed Catholic Church teachings. He said that was allowed because an opposing view was also presented.


Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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