What’s more strange about that headline? That Michigan Law would invite a guy who stands against the civil rights of certain members of the Michigan Law community, or that Michigan Law would invite a representative from Ohio to speak to its outgoing students?

I’m going with the latter. Rob Portman graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1984, but he has gone on to become the junior senator from Ohio. Ohio! In related news, Bo Schembechler was born in Ohio and went to college at Miami of Ohio, but I don’t think he was ever the keynote speaker during an Ohio athletics Hall of Fame ceremony.

Sadly, the fact that Michigan invited a guy who has taken a strong stance against the civil rights of gay people probably isn’t that out of the ordinary. Sure, at some point these anti-gay-marriage people will look as tolerant as pre-conversion George Wallace in front of a desegregated schoolhouse. But right now these enemies of love get to walk among us as regular people.

Guys at my high school used to have ignorant and flawed views about gay people all the time. It was no big deal.

But some students at Michigan Law are trying to make it a big deal. And that’s pretty exciting….

Maybe the kids at Michigan are not desensitized to the kind of normal discrimination gays must face, at least not in the way that most of the country seems to just accept that “mainstream” people can spout off totally nonsensical views about gay people. Maybe they’re more aware of this stuff because that’s what happens when a student on your campus is hounded and harassed by a state official while you are in school. Maybe getting an up close and personal view of what happens when these homophobes are allowed to go unchecked has given Michigan Law students a reason to act.

Or maybe it’s the Ohio thing. In any event, here’s the petition that is getting a lot of support among the Michigan 3L class:

Dear Dean Caminker:

We are writing to express our profound disappointment with the selection of Rob Portman as the May 2011 Senior Day Speaker. Michigan Law prides itself on its commitment to diversity and tolerance, and throughout its history, the school has demonstrated that these are not just platitudes. As the second American university to bestow a law degree on an African American, Gabriel Hargo, and the first to admit a woman, Sarah Kilgore, we have a long and admirable civil rights legacy. More recently, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the law school defended its controversial race-conscious affirmative action policy all the way to the Supreme Court. Finally, in a 2008 letter to the student body, you wrote of “the strong commitment of the faculty, administrators and staff of the Law School to making this an inclusive and supportive place for all of our students, regardless of their sexual orientation or other aspects of identity or belief[.]”

We are not writing because Sen. Portman is a Republican, nor because he served in the Bush Administration. Neither is a fair or principled reason to retract his invitation. Rather, we are discouraged by this choice because Sen. Portman vocally and actively supports denying equal rights to gays and lesbians, many of whom will be attending this year’s Senior Day ceremony. As a member of the House of Representatives, Senator Portman voted in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, as well as for a statute banning gay adoption. While running for Senate he again expressed his support of these positions, and there is no doubt that as a senator he will continue to oppose civil rights for LGBT citizens. While we do not wish to silence debate on these issues, nor to categorically deny individuals with anti-gay politics any opportunity to speak at the law school, we believe that your decision to host a Senior Day speaker who is openly hostile to LGBT rights is deeply unfair to the LGBT students who will be in the audience this year celebrating their graduation. For many members of our class, it will sully a milestone that would otherwise be a source of great pride, and it goes against Michigan’s very own policy of supporting equal treatment of the LGBT student community.

We sincerely hope you will reconsider your choice of Rob Portman as graduation speaker.

Thank you.

I really like the second part of the last paragraph. The biggest hatemongers in this country love to scream about how they’re not getting a fair chance to speak their mind. I hate that argument; people are allowed to say whatever they want, but I’m under no obligation to listen to it. I like how the Michigan people address the issue here. Let the hatemongers scream from the sidelines if they want; there’s no reason to invite them in so they can spew poison at the student body.

And let’s be clear, the thought that you can be a totally regular representative of people on issues of tax policy and debt ceilings, yet harbor a strange and ill-considered prejudice towards people because they like to do it with other consenting adults who you don’t think they should be doing it with, is poisonous. One can examine both sides of the debate over basic human equality without bringing in a poster child for unequal treatment to speak at class day.

But we’ll see what Dean Caminker does. He could have avoided the whole issue if he had simply thought, “Hey, do I or do I not want to offend every LGBT student at my school?” But the milk is out of the carton on that now. Perhaps he’ll dig in his heels (as NYU Law once tried to do with Dr. Li-ann Thio), or perhaps he’ll recognize that this was a bad idea and move on. (A spokesperson for Michigan Law did not respond to our inquiry about this controversy.)

Maybe you can split the baby? There’s got to be at least one Republican Senator out there who doesn’t hate gay people… or at least one with ties to Michigan Law who doesn’t live in Ohio.

UPDATE: Dean Caminker has issued a statement to the 3L class at UM Law, which you can read over here.


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