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Ten years after Michael Moore, former students say academic freedom still an issue

By Barbara Christiansen daily Herald - | Oct 20, 2014
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A sign with a cartoon Michael Moore is displayed outside the library auditorium at UVU while former Utah Valley State College Student student council members spoke about bringing the director to campus in 2004, at the UVU library on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.

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Former UVSC Vice President of Academics Joseph Vogel looks at former Utah Valley State College Student Body President Jim Bassi while speaking about inviting Michael Moore to campus in 2004, at the UVU library on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.

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Former Utah Valley State College Student Body President Jim Bassi and Former UVSC Vice President of Academics Joseph Vogel speak about inviting Michael Moore to campus in 2004, at the UVU library on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014. GRANT HINDSLEY, Daily Herald

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Former Utah Valley State College Student Body President Jim Bassi and Former UVSC Vice President of Academics Joseph Vogel speak about inviting Michael Moore to campus in 2004, at the UVU library on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014. GRANT HINDSLEY, Daily Herald

OREM – It was a homecoming of sorts as former student body officers at Utah Valley University — then known as Utah Valley State College — returned to speak at the school Monday.

They were two of the student council members who invited controversial filmmaker Michael Moore to speak at the school 10 years ago, sparking a reaction heard throughout the country.

In the midst of ultra-conservative Utah County, the students asked Moore, a renowned liberal, to speak shortly before the 2004 presidential election. Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11” had recently been released, there was a protest against a war and lots of passionate feelings were raging.

The invitation sparked a reaction, but not as much as did requests and demands that it be rescinded. The students did not give in, and conservative broadcaster Sean Hannity was also invited, in what appeared to be an effort to balance the offerings.

Jim Bassi, the former UVSC student body president, and Joseph Vogel, former UVSC student vice president of academics, said the student council did not give in to those who wanted them to change or withdraw the invitation for Moore to speak.

“One word sums it up — principle,” Bassi said. 

“Personally, I felt Michael Moore was speaking to relevant issues,” Vogel said. “I felt it would be cowardly to back down. He is a very important filmmaker.

“Certainly none of his ideas scared me. I was interested.”

But the prospect of what Moore might say seemed to scare someone.

“We had an idea this would add some controversy,” Bassi said. “We didn’t have an idea how much controversy. We brought it to the student council for a vote, actually two votes.” 

Bassi said council members informed UVSC President William Sederburg about inviting Moore before the student newspaper broke the news.

“His reaction was mellow,” Bassi said. “I was never asked by President Sederburg to cancel the event. I asked his advice, and he said if he was in my situation there was no way he would cancel it.”

Things escalated quickly, however. Reactions included threats of a lawsuit, the suggestion that construction at the college could be delayed because of the controversial speaker, and lots of rhetoric.

“We were getting so many calls,” Vogel said. “The intensity of the reaction shocked me. It was really surprising.”

Bassi reported the next day there were news trucks lined up with reporters waiting to interview them. 

“I was a little surprised we couldn’t reason with some people,” Bassi said. “There was no diplomatic solution. It was just a lot of yelling sometimes. Sometimes things were so polarized we couldn’t talk about it.”

The yelling included threats. UVSC was said to have been first in line for funding for a building, which is the current library, in which the workshop was held.

“The administration in general was in a tough position,” Vogel said. “There were threats of pulling funding. Before the contract was finalized it was up in the air. Things were under fire, including this building here.” 

“People thought he was a fringe guy,” he said of Moore. “I remember we had a meeting where a regent came to talk to us.” 

Vogel was referring to the UVSC Board of Regents.

“There really was a sense of pressure put on us,” he said. “Some even asked if the university was allowing the inmates to run the asylum.”

Bassi gave an example about how polarized the thinking was at the time.

“One regent said this wasn’t a question about Republicans and Democrats, but a question of good and evil,” he said.

However, a trustee told the students he had faith they would make the right decision and he would support them, Bassi said.

Soon after Moore’s speaking engagement was confirmed, Hannity entered the picture. He claimed he would waive his $100,000 speaking fee, but his travel expenses ended up being nearly half that amount, Bassi said.

Instead of a speech, Hannity’s visit turned into a rally, Bassi said.

“People got riled up. I felt uncomfortable,” Bassi said.

“There were 8,000 people in that building and about 20 or 25 of them had alternative views,” Vogel said. “You felt they had to book it out to their cars.”

That was to avoid being attacked if the tension rose even a notch, he said.

One casualty of the controversy was Vogel, who was asked to resign his student government post. It was not directly because of the invitation, however.

“I asked Joe to resign,” Bassi said. “That was the hardest thing I ever did on the council, maybe even ever since, in the last 10 years. At the time I felt like it was the right thing to do.

“It wasn’t pressure from the administration. It had nothing to do with the actual activities of Michael Moore and Sean Hannity coming. It was very tough.”

Bassi later explained it was because Vogel was writing a book about the situation, and Bassi did not feel it was appropriate for him to use his council position to promote it.

“It was very strange to me,” Vogel said. “When you look back on it, it was tough to think about it like that, but you move forward.”

Ten years later, Bassi and Vogel appeared friendly and seemed happy to see each other. They said they have learned from their experiences and said they appreciated the support. 

“People didn’t relate to Michael Moore but supported our decision,” Bassi said. “It was cool to see fellow students support our decision.

“It helped me learn so much. It helped me improve my communication. I learned to slow down and take a second before I say something or act on something, to be more calculating in my actions.”

Vogel said he realized minority views deserve to be heard.

“In my opinion Michael Moore should be able to come and speak,” he said. “No one was being forced to hear that speech.

“The idea is that academic freedom matters, free speech matters. Somebody that doesn’t reflect the majority view should be heard.”

Even now, it has brought people together to address the importance of academic freedom.

“A lot of like-minded folks have been finding each other,” said Vegor Pederson, who moderated Monday’s panel discussion. 

After the two former students spoke and answered questions from the attendees, there was a panel discussion on academic freedom with six UVU professors. After a lunch break, the film “This Divided State” was shown. It tells the story of the Moore visit and its fallout.


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