by Timothy Egan
Timothy Egan is a staff reporter for the New York Times.
This article appeared in the New York Times, December 19, 2001, p. B-1.
In California, a commencement speaker urging that citizens work to safeguard their fights to free speech, against unlawful detainment, and for a fair trial, is booed off the stage.
Christmas break usually leaves the campus of California State University here to roaming roosters and janitors. But the school’s administrators have been busy all week, fielding questions over an incident last week in which a commencement speaker was booed of the stage for calling for the protection of civil liberties in the government’s response terrorism.
“I have been a university president for 26 years, and I’ve never seen anything like what happened last Saturday,” said Donald R. Gerth, president of the university.
Dr. Gerth was on the stage in front of a crowd of at least 10,000 graduates and guests on Saturday night when the speaker, Janis Besler Heaphy, the president and publisher of The Scramento Bee, raised a number of euqestions about the government response to terrorism.
When Ms. Heaphy urged that citizens safeguard their rights in free speech, against unlawful detainment and for a fair trial she was loudly booed. When she wondered what would happen if racial profiling became routine, the audience cheered. The speech was halted as Dr. Gerth urged the crowd to be civil.
Ms. Heaphy tried to finish But just as she argued that “the Constitution makes it our right to challenge government policies,” a clapping chant and further heckling forced her off the stage.
Memory has etched different moments into different people’s minds. It was when she started defending habeas corpus that things went downhill,” said Robert Jones, a university vice president.
But some students, while saying that the rowdiness was limited to a very vocal bleacher crowd, criticized Ms. Heaphy for bringing up too many philosophical questions arising from the terrorist attacks on a day that they said should have been light and celebratory.
“She started out O.K., promising to be brief,” said Britt Randall, who graduated from California State last May and was attending as a guest. “But then she goes right into Sept. 11, and she goes on, and on, and on.”
The university did not keep a video or audio record of the speech, officials said. But a home video of the commencement address taken by a member of the audience shows that the heckling started about five minutes into a nine-minute speech, and grew as Ms. Heaphy raised questions about civil liberties violations.
The actions that Ms. Heaphy cited as questionable — from expanded wiretapping to harnessing the press, to unlawful detainment — were applauded by many in the audience.
“It was scary,” said Bob Buckley, a computer sciences professor and president of the faculty senate. “For the first time in my life, I can see how something like the Japanese internment camps could happen in our country.”
All week, the speech has been the talk of Sacramento, and among civil liberties advocates and their conservative critics.
“We’ve always known that if you took the Bill of Rights to the Street and asked most people to sign it, you would be unable to get a majority of Americans to do so,” said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Los Angeles.
Conservative talk radio Stations in California have criticized the speaker, a longtime newspaper executive, for the political content of the speech. Ms. Heaphy refused repeated requests for an interview.
In letters to the editor carried by The Bee this week, most writers were critical of Ms. Heaphy.
“Although I think it was a shame that she was unable to finish the speech, I feel that she brought the reaction of the crowd on herself,” wrote Jason Collins, identified as a student who witnessed the speech. “The consensus was that this forum was neither the time nor the place to be’ making such strong political statements as she did.”
Mr. Gerth, the university president, said that nothing in the speech diverged from a basic American civics lesson. “It is not only thoughtful, but extremely responsible,” he said of the speech.
Ms. Heaphy did not question the war effort or the buildup of domestic security. She praised the call to patriotism. But she repeatedly questioned whether American values were being lost in the response by law enforcement.
“No one argues the validity and need for both retaliation and security,” she said in the speech. “But to what lengths are we willing to go to achieve them? Specifically, to what degree are we willing to compromise our civil liberties in the name of security?”
University officials say the graduates themselves — about 1,100 students, or barely a tenth of the audience — were polite and did not take part in the heckling. The videotape is unclear on that point. But it does show sporadic hooting, heckling and foot-stomping from the stands.
Cal State Sacramento, which is far less known than other big institutions in the state system, has more than 27,000 students. It serves as a commuter school for the Sacramento area, as well as a place for international students to study.
Administrators say there have few protests — one way or the other— about the war.
“We had a teddy-bear drive to get at least one bear for each of the victims’ families from Sept. 11,” said Artemio Pimentel, the student body president.
Mr. Pimentel, who presents himself with a business card and occupies an office with slogans from past campus elections — “safer campus, no new fees” — said he was horrified by the jeering and heckling.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of students since this happened,” he said, “and they all say this is something they’ve never seen in their entire lives. People were sickened by this. But to be fair, a lot of people are just tired of hearing about 9/11.”
A text of Ms. Heaphy’s speech shows she intended to end on an upbeat note: “America was founded on the belief that the freedom to think as you will and speak as you think are essential to democracy. Only by exercising those rights can you ensure their continued existence.” But she quit about 500 words before that closing.
Mr. Buckley, the faculty president, said the incident was not unique to this campus.
“I think she could have given the speech at any university in America and the reaction would have been the same,” he said. “People in this country are hurt, angry and vengeful. There’s a lot of emotion out there.”