by Craig Morris
Censorship is generally understood as governmental control of information. But anyone who needs proof that dissent in the USA is silenced by authorities outside the governmental apparatus need look no further than the graduation ceremony at Ohio State on June 14, 2002.
A group of graduates had put up a web site (http://www.turnyourbackonbush.com/) to protest the presence of a speaker at their graduation whose policies they objected to. As the site's name suggests, students were simply to stand up and "Turn Your Backs on Bush" (TYBOB) during his speech. The website specifically called on those who wanted to participate to "stay silent" and "maintain an air of dignity and an environment of respect for everyone. Remain calm and do not do anything that could harm the group or jeopardize our credibility."
Such protests are certainly nothing new at universities, which are rightly seen as the last bastions of idealism in a society increasingly dominated by moneyed interests. Nor is George W. Bush unfamiliar with protests at his university speeches; he was largely heckled at his commencement address at his alma mater Yale last year.
But the administration at Ohio State saw things differently. Richard A. Hollingsworth, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, made it clear that anyone playing along with the TYBOB campaign would be "arrested" and their diplomas withheld. There is no question that such arrests are possible today; under the Patriot Act, simple peaceful demonstrators can be considered "unlawful combatants" and hauled off for interrogation. I was not sure what the legal basis is for withholding diplomas, though, so I wrote Mr Hollingsworth an email and called him - to no avail.
I was, however, able to reach many of those involved in the protest. Professor Louise Antony confirmed that the university had threatened to withhold the diplomas of protesters. Out of some 6,000 graduates and 55,000 visitors in the stadium for the commencement ceremony, only 4 graduates and some 10 others turned their backs on Bush. While Professor Antony did not feel that the threats had lowered the number of students willing to protest, Professor Furuhashi - who witnessed a demonstration of roughly 100 people outside the stadium - said the threats had had a "chilling effect" on the TYBOB campaign. And Hillary Tinapple, one of the graduates who did turn her back on Bush, said that she felt pressure not only from the university, but also from many fellow graduates who tried to convince her that the ceremony was not the right place for a protest. She said that the pressure "did not change my decision to stand, but I'm sure it did for hundreds, if not thousands of others."
Thousands? Well, William Rivers Pitt of truthout.org wrote a few days after
the speech that "Eyewitnesses at the scene state that they were unable to count the number of peace symbols, because there were too many to be
counted." But you will search the major papers in vain for such facts.
AP did not mention to protest, but did at least write that "immediately
before class members filed into the giant football stadium, an announcer
instructed the crowd that all the university's speakers deserve to be
treated with respect and that anyone demonstrating or heckling would be
subject to expulsion and arrest." Reuters did not deem it necessary to
mention either the protest or the threats from the university.
Instead, we read a White House spokesman's claim that Bush's speech - which Dubya himself dubbed "brief and forgotten" - was based on the teachings of "Aristotle, Adam Smith, de Tocqueville and Pope John Paul". The Washington Post also failed to mention both the protests and the sanctions, but did add the teachings of George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Cicero to the list. The WashPost seems to be better than Reuters at noting White House comments word for word.
The Post article made reference to the "liberal" protesters at Yale last
year, where Bush faced hecklers with a self-defacing reassurance: "To the C
students, I say, 'You, too, can be president of the United States." (For
readers unfamiliar with the US grading system: a C is the lowest passing
grade. Bush got many of them.) But the Post used the Yale reference only to
underscore the lack of protest at Ohio State due to the "transformation of
Bush and his presidency since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks" and added:
"If there was a protest in the stadium, it was not visible to reporters."
(Note the wording: not "I didn't see any", but "None of us saw any.")
And while the Post points out that Bush was "chosen" by the graduates to speak, the TYBOB site now claims that Tom Hanks, the students' first choice, had not been available. But Bush was able to swing by Ohio as he was on the road to Houston anyway, where he raised $1.7 million for Texas Republicans at a fund raising event. As Bush put it in his speech at Ohio State, "Everyone needs some cause larger than his or her own profit."
A version of this article appeared in German at www.heise.de/tp.