It was a little over two years ago (fall 2004) when, in my role as student vice president of academics at Utah Valley State College, I invited controversial film maker Michael Moore to town. That decision ignited a firestorm of controversy that resulted in pulled funds, bribery, a lawsuit, and even threats of violence. Conservative talk show host Sean Hannity was invited for "balance," a petition for a student government recall was circulated, and a typically placid, conservative community suddenly seemed to be preparing for the apocalypse. I was personally flooded with letters, emails, and phone calls from people who told me I had betrayed my community, country, faith, and family. One person went so far as to say I should be "tarred, feathered, and run out of the state on a rail."
Fast forward to the present and the comparisons are inevitable. Controversial speaker (Vice President Dick Cheney) is invited to campus (this time to neighboring, privately-owned Brigham Young University). Outrage ensues in the form of protests, demonstrations, letters, and press coverage. There are discussions of "balance," of getting someone from the "other side." And once again, religion plays a central role.
But are these controversies really the same? Is the "Coming of Cheney" really the sequel to "Hurricane Mike"?
One thing is certain: while I am now a graduate student at Brigham Young University, I can safely say I had no part in inviting Dick Cheney. In fact, my role in this current controversy has essentially flipped. I have been actively engaged in organizing and protesting against Dick Cheney, who I believe, to be blunt, is probably the worst vice president in American history.
"Hypocrite!" some have told me. "How can you get upset at those who tried to prevent Michael Moore's speech and then turn around and do the same thing with someone you disagree with?"
My response is that I am not trying to block Dick Cheney's speech. I'm not offering BYU's Board of Trustees $40,000 dollars behind closed doors to cancel. I'm not filing a lawsuit. And I'm certainly not making death threats. (All of these things occurred in the Michael Moore case.)
What I am doing, along with hundreds of other students, faculty, and alumni, is making my voice count. I believe, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, that "silence is betrayal." If something is wrong (slavery, war, genocide, discrimination) we have an obligation to use our free speech to oppose it.
Let me reiterate: I had no problem with people speaking out against Michael Moore when I invited him to Utah Valley State in 2004. The activity, debate, and conversation on campus (especially when it was civil) was what was most encouraging. People were asking important questions and re-evaluating their views. Students and community members alike were shaken out of their apathy and indifference. Utah Valley State never seemed more like a real college campus.
What I felt was wrong were the thousands of people seeking to arbitrarily prevent the speech, withdrawing funding, making threats, and filing frivolous lawsuits.
So let Dick Cheney come to BYU. The truth is in spite of my disappointment that such a man would be given the honor to speak at commencement (and, we just learned, an honorary degree), some positives have come out of it. We've learned, for instance, that BYU (and the Mormon Church) isn't this monolithic, homogeneous group of ultra-conservatives. There is some diversity and dissent. Some might not even be voting for Mitt Romney.
We've also seen a surge in political activity. As the Salt Lake Tribune recently put it: "It reminds us of 2004 when liberal icon Michael Moore was invited to speak at Utah Valley State College, and the community went into cardiac arrest. . .We'll say the same thing we said then. This is democracy at work. Debate, protests, boycotts, issues brought to the forefront - it's all good. It's all part of the participatory process."
But there are also some noteworthy distinctions between the visits of Dick Cheney and Michael Moore. The major issues people seemed to have with Moore (based on the hundreds of messages I received) were, in order: 1) he was too fat and unkempt, 2) he wasn't objective in his films, and 3) he was too harsh a critic of the Bush Administration and the war. In contrast, the concerns with Cheney are 1) his role in sending hundreds of thousands of young people into a tragically unnecessary war, 2) his advocation of torture as a "no-brainer," and 3) his suspect involvement in the Scooter Libby/Valery Plaime affair. Shooting someone in the face is a close fourth.
The other significant distinction is that Michael Moore was invited to speak at an optional, student-organized venue, while Dick Cheney is being given the honor of imparting the final words of wisdom to all BYU graduates of 2007 (an honor bestowed, not by the College Republicans or Business Department, but by BYU's Board of Trustees).
Because of these distinctions (especially in who invited Dick Cheney), those BYU students, faculty, and alumni who dissent are often labeled as heretics. They are marginalized and made to feel unworthy and unwelcome for expressing their views. They are considered an embarrassment to the high reputation and "standards" of BYU. Good, patriotic students, they are told, follow their leaders, respect authority, and don't make a scene by protesting.
It is perhaps because of this strongly conservative, sometimes dissent-stifling atmosphere that BYU hasn't had a political protest in over 15 years, according to BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins. The good news is the drought is over.
BYU students, faculty, and alumni opposed to Cheney, while still in the minority (under 10% according to one poll), are bravely speaking out, writing letters, holding planning meetings, and demonstrating in unprecedented numbers. A recent protest organized by the BYU Democrats drew close to three hundred people and was covered by the New York Times, CNN, Newsweek, and numerous other media outlets. Preparations are now under way for protests the day of Cheney's visit on graduation day, including a peace sit-in, a march, and an alternative commencement ceremony.
Students for BYU Alternative Commencement has now raised over $23,000 dollars to host their separate ceremony, including an astounding $12,000 dollars in four hours thanks largely to the generous contributions of readers of the Daily Kos. Extra funds are being donated to local charities, including the Food and Care Coalition. Organizer and BYU student Ashley Sanders, who will be graduating today, asked that her parents' graduation gift be a donation to the ca use. Numerous other students have sacrificed what limited time and funds they have to help make a commencement where they feel represented, where their voices matter, become a reality.
The message is clear: Even in the heart of conservatism -- on the reddest campus in the reddest county in the reddest state in the country -- there are voices -- Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike -- calling for change. As one sign at a recent protest expressed it: "Corruption is not a partisan issue." Even at BYU there are conscientious students who refuse to allow the prestige of high office blind them to the reality of corruption, scandal, torture, and war.
Our voices may still be small in numbers, but we are determined to make them count.
*Note: A shortened version of this editorial will be printed in the Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, April 26th.