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At Middlebury College, the Jury's Out on the Head Supreme

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Published October 18, 2006 at 2:20 p.m.

MIDDLEBURY - Middlebury College continues its tradition of hosting talks by headline names when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts gives an address next Tuesday in Mead Chapel. Another tradition - of students protesting the college's choices of conservative speakers - also looks to be on track.

Discussion groups have been meeting over the past few weeks to strategize how to alert students about why "it's really crucial to do something" about Roberts' visit to Middlebury, says senior Liz Lyon, a protest organizer. She's hoping hundreds will turn out to oppose "the trend of inviting right-wing speakers" to the college, and to defend abortion rights and civil liberties, both of which may be restricted during the current term of the Roberts court.

Lyon also expects some students to unfurl protest banners inside the chapel, as occurred when alumnus Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary, spoke during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Protests also took place at Middlebury graduation ceremonies the past two years in response to the conservative records of featured speakers Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, and UNICEF director Ann Veneman, a former agriculture secretary in the Bush administration.

But it's not clear that Roberts' appearance will occasion the same sizable and vocal dissent that greeted Fleischer in 2002. "At that time he was a lightning rod for people who wanted to show objection to Bush's Iraq policy," says Jonathan Isham, a Middlebury economics professor. "Whether Roberts will serve as a lightning rod remains to be seen."

The 51-year-old chief justice is "very smart and also very much below the radar," Lyon says. "That's what's so scary about him."

To Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, Roberts' presence on campus is consistent with the school's responsibility to "encourage diverse dialogue among the next generation of leaders." The chief justice's acceptance of an invitation to take part in an endowed annual lecture series also ringingly affirms Middlebury's status as an elite academic institution.

The authentic diversity of the dialogue cited by Liebowitz can be questioned, however. Past speakers in the annual series have included James Baker, secretary of state under Bush the elder, and William Rehnquist, appointed by Richard Nixon as Roberts' predecessor.

In addition to a ruling in the coming months on a federal law banning "partial birth abortion," Middlebury students should be concerned about the Roberts court's attitude regarding U.S. military tribunals, Lyon suggests. The Supremes are also scheduled to hear two cases in the coming months related to laws intended to combat global warming.

Lyon, a leader of a campus group called Incarceration in Question, was inspired to help organize a Roberts protest primarily because of her involvement in prison-rights issues. Her activism stems from a belief that "If you want to understand what's wrong with society, you go to where it's worst - prisons and mental institutions."

Outsiders wishing to hear Roberts speak for 30 minutes on an undisclosed topic - and to take audience questions for an additional 15 minutes - may have to view the event on closed-circuit television. Mead Chapel, with a capacity of about 750, will be open initially only to those presenting a Middlebury College ID. Spokesman Mike McKenna says the college expects students, faculty and staff to fill the chapel.

About 400 additional seats will be available at two satellite venues on the 2400-student campus. The college is advising anyone interested in watching a televised version of Roberts' address to arrive at Bicentennial or Dana Hall 45 minutes before the scheduled start at 8:15 p.m.

Security checks may prove rigorous, as well. The chief justice's own set of bodyguards will be on hand, along with the usual security personnel the college deploys for major events. Rehnquist, who summered in Vermont, often went without.