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Published: Thursday, 4/21/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Portman pick draws fire at UM law school

Students cite lawmaker's anti-gay votes

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, (R., Ohio) has been chosen as the University of Michigan law school commencement speaker. U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, (R., Ohio) has been chosen as the University of Michigan law school commencement speaker.
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The choice of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) as the University of Michigan law school commencement speaker is drawing fire from some students for his votes against gay marriage as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

About one-third of the 2011 law school's graduating class has signed a letter blasting Mr. Portman, a 1984 alumnus of the law school, as "openly hostile to LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] rights," and his upcoming speech an insult to LGBT students, a spokesman for the group said.

Mr. Portman will speak to graduates of the law school May 7 in Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor.

The students cited his votes as a congressman in 1996 for the Defense of Marriage Act. That law, signed by President Bill Clinton, said no state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage. In February, President Obama ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the law's constitutionality in court. Republicans in the House of Representatives have hired a law firm to defend the law.

The students also cited Mr. Portman's votes in 1999 to bar same-sex couples in Washington, D.C., from adopting, and in 2004 for an unsuccessful bill to amend the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriage.

Sarah St. Vincent, a spokesman for the students, said 98 members of the 295-member graduating class signed the letter, as did 200 other law school students. She said they are discussing what action to take in protest, ranging from pledging not to contribute to the school for a certain number of years, walking out during the speech, or carrying signs.

"It's not an issue of silencing a debate. It's not that people here are unwilling to hear those views. We know those views are out there. It's a matter of respecting the rights of LGBT students," said Ms. St. Vincent, 29, of near Harrisburg, Pa. Ms. St. Vincent said she and other heterosexual students are acting in support of their fellow students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Mr. Portman left the House of Representatives in 2005 and was elected last November to succeed retiring Republican U.S. Sen. George Voinovich.

Richard Fitzgerald, a spokesman for UM Law School Dean Evan Caminker, said the college has had speakers from both sides of the political spectrum. He said the dean is not reconsidering his invitation to Mr. Portman.

"The dean looks to the long history of University of Michigan grads who are doing phenomenal things and quite frequently invites those alumni back to speak," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "When they select their speaker they're always looking to have a wide range of diverse speakers who bring different perspectives. We think he has something to offer from his perspective as a Michigan alumnus and his service to government."

Last year's speaker was Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama.

President Obama was the speaker at the University of Michigan 2010 overall graduation, in which he criticized "poisonous" rhetoric and advised students to sample opinions of both left and right. Mr. Obama said during his 2008 campaign that he personally opposed same-sex marriage, but opposed the Defense of Marriage Act.

Ms. St. Vincent said she was out of the country last year and did not know if there was any opposition to Mr. Obama based on his opposition to gay marriage. She said her graduating class believes it is of a generation that views equality based on sexual orientation as "more than an academic question on which people can agree to disagree."

In announcing the selection, Mr. Caminker said Mr. Portman's career demonstrates the opportunities open to graduates of the law school.

Mr. Portman said, "I feel honored as an alum to speak to the future leaders of our country as they prepare to take their next steps in life."



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