In the end, the free speech arguments won the day.
By a lopsided vote, the University of Minnesota Senate on Thursday rejected a proposal by a small group of activists to condemn an upcoming appearance by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is scheduled to speak at the U this month.
The Senate, representing faculty, students and staff, voted 122-21 to defeat the resolution, which had been toned down from an earlier version urging the U to rescind the invitation.
The resolution itself was nonbinding. But it triggered an impassioned hourlong debate in a lecture hall full of academics, with each side claiming moral high ground.
"Let the students hear Condoleezza Rice!" said Prahith Chakka, president of the U's Student Senate.
"This is not about freedom of speech or ideas or ideology," countered Dr. John Foker, a medical school professor. "This is about … upholding truth."
Rice is slated to speak April 17 at Northrop Auditorium as part of the Humphrey School's Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series. The topic is civil rights.
Last week, math professor William Messing, a member of the University Senate, agreed to sponsor the resolution as a way to pressure the Humphrey School to revoke its invitation. Drafted by a student group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), it argued that Rice's "prominent role" in the Bush administration's wartime policies made her unfit for such an honor. It accused her, among other things, of taking part in "efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" and condoning "waterboarding and other torture tactics."
But news of the campaign sparked a backlash across the university.
"I think it's a small minority that's opposed to her speaking," said Mike Schmit, 21, president of the Minnesota Student Association. The group, which represents students on the Twin Cities campus, voted Tuesday to oppose the resolution.
The Minnesota Daily, the student newspaper, called it unfortunate that "a group of University of Minnesota students would rather stifle dialogue than promote it." Columnist Derek Olson wrote that he was "positively flummoxed" by the anti-Rice campaign. "Forget civilized discourse, forget tolerance, forget the free exchange of ideas. This is the value that SDS is endorsing," he wrote.
Nick Theis, a 22-year-old neuroscience major and SDS member, said that many students of his generation "don't even recognize the name Condoleezza Rice." The resolution, he said, focuses attention on her controversial role in history.
"The university shouldn't be just uncritically endorsing these kinds of speeches," he said. He also objected to Rice's speaking fee, $150,000, which he called "shocking." The U says she is being paid with donor funds.
On Thursday, U President Eric Kaler weighed in against the resolution. "I strongly believe this university needs to be a place that promotes and aggressively celebrates free speech," he said.
Messing, the sponsor, argued that he supports free speech, but that Rice should be held accountable for her actions. "I would make the distinction that Condoleezza Rice, in my view, is a war criminal," he said.
Rice has not responded to requests for comment.
Rylee Ahnen, a 21-year-old senior, drew the loudest applause when he called himself "a very liberal Democrat" who wants to hear Rice talk. "I'll probably disagree with her," he said, "but I will find value in what she has to say."
The Humphrey School announced that Rice, a professor at Stanford University, will "share her perspectives on the progress achieved and challenges ahead in efforts to promote civil rights for all Americans." She will also meet with U students and attend a reception and dinner.
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384