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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Students stage a sit-in Wednesday to protest Vice President Dick Cheney being the commencement speaker at BYU.

PROVO — The only thing burned Wednesday at a midday campus protest at Brigham Young University was the students' skin.

Student Democrats at the private, religious school left the burning-in-effigy of oppressive leaders to Cal-Berkeley and other public universities.

Still, they considered the relatively tame sit-in a success because more than 300 students, faculty and staff demonstrated their concern about the choice of Vice President Dick Cheney as BYU's commencement speaker on April 26.

There were a couple of highlights. One woman wore a paper sack over her head. Another poured water over a second hooded student's face to symbolize torture tactics supported by Cheney.

"This is much larger than anyone expected," said Byron Daynes, a political science professor who spent last year at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. "As a William J. Clinton Fellow, I'm delighted."

So was German professor Rob McFarland, who like many of an estimated 50 faculty who joined the demonstration, hoped the protesters would behave themselves so the administration would OK future rallies at a school where they are scarce.

"It's very kind of BYU to provide this kind of venue where without vandalism and slander we can share ideas," said McFarland, who earned a degree at Berkeley.

The group did not call for BYU to pull Cheney's invitation, although some demonstrators would like to see that happen.

"I object to his speaking at commencement," neuroscience major Heather Marsh said. "Generally commencement is for role models. I don't think he is someone we should emulate. By protesting, we're sending a message we don't like the current trend, and that gives the government a chance to respond. That's how a democracy works."

Most objected to the vice president's policy on torture and what they said was his war profiteering through Halliburton. They also wanted to make it clear that BYU is not exclusively conservative.

The White House offered Cheney as a commencement speaker to BYU this spring because President Bush couldn't accept the university's invitation last year. The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints then extended the invitation to Cheney in their roles as the leaders of BYU's board of trustees.

"The church is neutral but says to be politically active," McFarland said. "They invited a political speaker, and I think it was a good idea for BYU. They've handled it well by making it a catalyst for discussions."

The dialogue will continue Monday with a panel discussion sponsored by BYU's Kennedy Center for International Studies. Four panelists will discuss "Vice President Cheney and the Global War on Terror" in the Varsity Theater at 2 p.m.

Wednesday's sit-in was organized by Diane Bailey, president of the BYU College Democrats student club. Bailey obtained permission for the public forum from the dean of Student Life, Vern Heperi, and she kept a tight rein on her charges, telling them to sit inside the orange-tape circle and talk quietly.

Bailey also asked Heperi for help policing the event.

"I told the dean I wanted help to make sure causes against our church did not hijack our event," she said.

That led to a couple of scenes where administrators pointed out questionable signs to Bailey. She asked four protesters to put away their signs.

One of them, BYU graduate Tom Doggett, created a placard with pictures of four men — Cheney, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, deceased former LDS President Spencer W. Kimball and Elder Russell M. Nelson of the church's Quorum of the Twelve. Church members revere President Hinckley as a prophet and consider Elder Nelson one of 12 living apostles.

The sign mimicked the "Sesame Street" song, "One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn't belong."

"I love the prophet and apostles," said Doggett, who complied with Bailey's request by folding the sign four ways and then refused to show it to photographers. "I'd rather have them come speak at commencement."

While the message didn't attack the church, some might take it that way, Bailey said.

"If you put up pictures of the prophet or First Presidency at a protest like this, the automatic assumption for some is that it's an attack," Bailey said. Bailey has applied for permission to conduct another demonstration on the day Cheney speaks.

Several Democrats expressed frustration with the College Republicans student club because it held a simultaneous "pro-BYU" party about 100 yards away. Most of that smaller group's signs proclaimed the GOP club supported BYU and the church's First Presidency.

"The implication is we don't (support BYU)," complained German professor Alan Keele. "That's a Karl Rove tactic — to take our message and twist it into something it's not."

While far fewer people stood inside the blue-tape circle at the Republican rally, club president David Lassen said the group gave away 600 cookies to passing students and about 400 BYU-blue armbands signifying support for Cheney.

The club also gathered thank-you notes for Cheney that Lassen hopes to deliver to the vice president.

The lack of sustained turnout was no surprise to Adam Stoddard, a political science major from Bountiful. "This campus is conservative but apolitical, not motivated to come out and hold a sign," he said. The Democrats handed out BYU-white armbands. At the height of the sit-in, the club presidency counted 270 protesters. Several more came and went as the two-hour rally continued, putting total participation over the 300 mark.

The group ended the sit-in with a spontaneous, hearty rendition of the national anthem.

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com