The commencement address for mid-year graduates at California State University, Sacramento, was halted Saturday after audience members in the packed house at Arco Arena drowned out the speech with heckling.
Janis Besler Heaphy, president and publisher of The Sacramento Bee, was speaking before the largest crowd ever for a CSUS graduation ceremony about the threats to civil liberties posed by the federal government's investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks. Her comments were drowned out about five minutes into the eight-minute speech when a segment of the audience began to stomp and clap in protest to her words.
University President Don Gerth said he could not provide exact figures for the number of people attending Saturday's event, but said Arco Arena was packed for the ceremony, which combined the graduation rites for several schools at the university. The arena can hold more than 17,000.
"This was a message about civil liberties and our acceptance of differing points of view in American society," Heaphy said in an interview after the commencement. "It's a message that needs to continue to be heard."
During her speech, the heckling began after Heaphy voiced concerns about racial profiling, the suspension of civil rights of suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks, and the establishment of military tribunals.
Gerth said the graduating students were respectful and that the interruptions came from family members and friends in the audience. He said several students came up to Heaphy afterward to apologize.
Before Heaphy was interrupted, Gerth said, she was making a point about the potential consequences of the methods being used to investigate the terrorist attacks. He said that, in light of the many lives lost in the attacks, some members of the audience may have found the message hard to hear.
"The temper of the times is not terribly open to that," he said. "Our students have a right to hear our speaker. I have never seen behavior like this. It is a day I will never forget. I am not proud of it."
Gerth said he took the microphone and quieted the audience after the first interruption, but that Heaphy stopped speaking about three-quarters of the way through her speech after more loud heckling.
"When the university invited me to speak," Heaphy said, "I thought about what to say. I decided that the message should be one that emphasizes the need to continue to embrace the traditions of liberty that are at the core of American democracy.
"Nothing that happened today changes my mind for the need to continue to articulate those values."
Gerth concluded the ceremony by announcing that the speech will be posted Monday on the university's Web site. The Bee will publish the address on Monday's opinion page.
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