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Raising curtains

With the giant stone cross guarding the entrance to campus, Pepperdine University is not known as a bastion of support for the American Civil Liberties Union. Nevertheless, Stephen Rohde, president of the ACLU of Southern California, climbed the Malibu mountain of Pepperdine’s campus last week to speak to students, addressing the topic of “Current Threats to Civil Liberties.”

Rohde’s appearance at Pepperdine follows closely on the heels of the formation of the first ACLU chapter at the notoriously conservative school. The formation of the club was strongly protested by the student chapter of the Federalist Society, who distributed fliers calling the ACLU a “liberal, communist, close-minded organization of cowards who are afraid to show their true colors.” With the club now established at the school, Rohde was able to laugh off the protest, saying “We in the ACLU would support the Federalist Society’s right to distribute their opinions . . . no matter how misinformed they may be.” Nick Consula, who co-founded the ACLU Student Chapter at Pepperdine, said that inviting Rohde to speak on campus was beneficial for both the ACLU and Pepperdine. “The reason we began this organization was to help add another dimension to the discussion at Pepperdine. Having Stephen Rohde speak to the students might get them to consider a point of view they haven’t heard before,” Consula said.

Rohde addressed what he called “the common ground on civil liberties” that Pepperdine and the ACLU share. Rohde drew praise from those assembled when he discussed the recent work by the ACLU in combating speech codes. While not wanting to promote “hate speech,” Rohde said that campus speech codes were being used to punish controversial ideas, a practice that runs afoul of the first amendment. Pepperdine has no such speech code.

Rohde drew a few raised eyebrows when he called for a moratorium on the death penalty, calling it a “perfect punishment in an imperfect judicial system.” He cited statistics that show over twenty innocent people have been put to death in the United States since 1985.

He raised even more hackles when he spoke of the Office of Independent Counsel, and the tactics used by Ken Starr and his staff while investigating the president. Rohde said that the ACLU was looking into possible civil liberties violations by Starr. Pepperdine has a long history with Starr, even courting him to be the Dean of the Public Policy and Law Schools.

When he concluded his remarks, however, Rohde headed off to a luncheon with the Pepperdine deans, a sign perhaps that the gulf between the school and organization is not all that wide. “Controversy is nothing new to the ACLU,” Rohde said. “We’re looking forward to a long and healthy relationship with Pepperdine and its students.”

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John McCormally

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