Protest planned at Middlebury commencement

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(Host) Middlebury College has a tradition of recruiting well known commencement speakers. In recent years, public television’s Mister Rogers and actor Christopher Reeve have helped send graduating seniors into the world.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Former New York City Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, may have seemed like a natural choice to the committee of students, trustees and faculty that recommended him as commencement speaker at Middlebury College. This year’s graduates began their college careers within days of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But his selection has raised objections from some who say Giuliani’s policies created racial tension in New York. There were charges of racial profiling and police brutality.

This spring, the on-campus debate over Giuliani was eclipsed by controversy over a touched up photograph published in the student newspaper. The photo depicted Giuliani with an Adolph Hitler mustache. Middlebury President, Ronald Liebowitz, condemned the photo in a campus-wide email and the paper’s student editor resigned.

Although much of the controversy has subsided, senior Cynthia Hernandez has been contacting faculty members and other students. She says so far at least 30 people have agreed to join her in a protest during Giuliani’s speech.

(Hernandez) “We’re going to be tying red sashes around our mouths when he starts speaking as a symbol of the silencing of the racial minorities, the homeless community and the queer community in New York City.”

(Zind) Hernandez grew up in New York. She knows she’s more familiar with the controversy over Giuliani than many of her fellow students. She’s trying to arrange on-campus screenings of several films critical of Giuliani in order to convince more students to join the protest.

(Hernandez) “It will be a silent protest and it will be certainly respectful of the commencement exercises. I’m a graduating senior. I would like to be able to go through my graduation with as much dignity and with all of the respect that it deserves.”

(Zind) Hernandez hopes at least one-hundred people will take part in the protest. The College expects as many as five-thousand people to attend the graduation.
Spokesman Phil Benoit says this is the first time in memory that there’s been any controversy over the college’s commencement speaker.

(Benoit) “We’re certainly tolerant and happy to have people dissent from that opinion and second guess our opinion about whether they think that Giuliani is an appropriate speaker but it doesn’t influence our decision.”

(Zind) Benoit says past demonstrations at Middlebury have always been peaceful and no added precautions are being taken in light of the planned commencement protest. Graduation is May 22nd.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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