SACRAMENTO -- When Sacramento Bee publisher and president Janis Besler Heaphy walked
away from the podium at Arco Arena recently, drowned by boos and foot stomping,
she showed that a country built on free speech and dissent continues to
struggle with how to behave in wartime.
Heaphy's winter 2001 commencement address for California State University
at Sacramento questioned whether the government's response to Sept. 11 would
erode civil liberties. But the crowd didn't want to hear it -- and their jeers
Some students and parents said Heaphy simply politicized their "special day,
" but fallout from the speech also is continued evidence of how dramatically
public discourse has changed since Sept. 11. Attorney General John Ashcroft
made the starkest comments to date when he warned that people raising the
"phantoms of lost liberties" were aiding terrorists.
I would think that three months after Sept. 11 we would be getting to the point where we could be circumspect about the new reality. But there is a lot of fear that you will not been seen as a patriot. I would hope that this would not have a chilling effect.
propaganda expert Annenberg School for Communication at USC
"I would think that three months after Sept. 11 we would be getting to the
point where we could be circumspect about the new reality," said Nancy Snow, a
government propaganda expert and lecturer at the Annenberg School for
Communication at the University of Southern California. "But there is a lot of
fear that you will not been seen as a patriot. I would hope that this would
not have a chilling effect."
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who calls Sacramento his adoptive
hometown, branded Heaphy arrogant for her "mean-spirited diatribe against the
Bush administration." The Drudge Report featured three
posts about the controversy. Local talk radio hosts and callers hammered the
subject yesterday, and the Bee printed 11 of several dozen letters and e-mails
"Heaphy had an inappropriate political agenda," wrote reader Kelly Heikila
of Colfax. "She took it upon herself to push her opinions and viewpoints on a
large, captive audience."
An unusually large crowd of 17,000 people listened to about eight minutes
of Heaphy's speech at Arco Arena on Saturday. But many of them started booing
and stamping their feet when she raised questions about the federal detention
of more than 1,000 people since Sept. 11, racial profiling of Middle Eastern
men and secret military tribunals.
"No one argues the validity and need for both retaliation and security,"
Heaphy said, according to a copy of 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?"
Heaphy declined to comment other than to issue a one-paragraph statement
saying she stands by her speech.
University President Donald Gerth said that a small group of people in the
balcony had created the initial commotion but that others apologized to Heaphy.
Gerth called the hecklers rude and said Heaphy's speech was "not only
thoughtful but exceedingly responsible in today's world."
But unlike Gerth, who says he likes substance in commencement speeches,
many students questioned why she would criticize the government at a ceremony
usually devoted to a speech with the theme, "The world is your oyster."
"As for the speech itself, I think the ideas expressed were totally right
on," said Eric Guerra, 23, an engineering student and executive vice president
of the Associated Students. "As far as the appropriateness at a graduation
ceremony, it's a little iffy."
Bee political columnist Daniel Weintraub said he had received dozens of e-
mails from people who attended the speech, and many of them complained about
the appropriateness of the subject at a graduation. But he disagreed.
"It wasn't political. It wasn't partisan. She's not running for office or
promoting herself," Weintraub said. "She was talking about an issue that,
other than the war itself, is the most important issue in the country today.
What better topic to discuss at a graduation ceremony?"
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle