OSU Criticized For Quieting Bush Protesters

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Students, parents and civil libertarians are accusing Ohio State University of violating First Amendment rights in its effort to prevent protests at President Bush's commencement address.

Richard Hollingsworth, associate vice president of student affairs, warned graduates before Bush's speech Friday that "obstructing the view or hearing of others" could lead to their removal or arrest.

His remarks were prompted by reports that some audience members planned to stand up and turn their backs to Bush during his speech.

"There, quite honestly, were concerns about hecklers," university spokeswoman Amy Murray told The Plain Dealer. "You don't want the president to come to your event and be heckled."

Hollingsworth's electronic mailbox was flooded with more than 300 messages protesting the threat of student arrests, the newspaper reported. Those who wrote to Hollingsworth included students and parents.

Hollingsworth was unavailable to comment.

"We just didn't want to make this a political event; it's a graduation," Murray said. "We wanted to do everything we could to keep the focus on our graduates and not move it to the views against our speaker."

Bush was selected by students to be their speaker.

Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio, said an institution has every right to limit guests' conduct, but political acts are specifically covered under the First Amendment.

"If an event has a political component, say heckling the president, that is very much protected speech," he said. "The purpose of allowing the president to speak in our system is to allow him to convey his views. He should not be ensured or expected to have an enthusiastic audience. Acting in that way is no better than those who round up cheering crowds to line Saddam Hussein's motorcade route."

Ohio State Police Chief Ron Michalec said police identified eight people of some 60,000 -- two students and six guests -- who stood and turned their backs during Bush's speech. They were not arrested.

Michalec said police intended to arrest only those who blocked someone's view or got out of hand.

About 50 activists who gathered near the stadium protested Bush's domestic and foreign policy, ranging from worker rights to the war on terrorism.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)