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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Ralph Nader speaks at the "alternative commencement" Thursday evening at UVSC. He railed against the auto industry, U.S. tax system, two-party political system and materialism.

OREM — Consumer advocate Ralph Nader drew cheers and applause Thursday as he questioned Brigham Young University's decision to invite Vice President Dick Cheney to speak at the school's graduation ceremony.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU, was born of "revelation, rebellion and dissent," but the church's contemporary leaders seem to have lost that spirit, Nader said Thursday night at the McKay Events Center at Utah Valley State College.

He spoke at the co-called "alternative commencement," which was planned as a counter event to Cheney's address.

In his address, Nader referred to the decision of the LDS Church's First Presidency to ask Cheney to speak at commencement — and the subsequent student protests that first had to be approved by administrators.

"We have to ask ourselves," he said, "what is it about their environment (at BYU) that led them to do this?

"Was it a lack of reflection on the campus? Did it touch something my father asked me when I was 10 years old and I came home from school and he asked me, 'What did you learn today, Ralph? Did you learn to believe or did you learn to think?"'

Of the 1,000 people in attendance, about 60 were professors and students donning caps and gowns. One such graduate was political science major Jeannine Plamondon, who also attended Cheney's speech at the Marriott Center

"I went to the Cheney one because I went to BYU and it was the official event," said Plamondon, who will return to her native Canada for a law degree from McGill University in Montreal. "I don't like Cheney, but I won't let Cheney ruin my graduation. My parents are here."

But she also wanted to attend the alternative commencement.

"I think Ralph Nader is a great example," she said.

As people entered the McKay Events Center they passed tables with literature promoting causes such as the Palestinian "apartheid" in Israel and families of U.S. soldiers who want their children back home.

The event also opened and closed with prayer.

In general, the crowd was more casual than the people who attended the official BYU graduation. The only people who dressed up were family members of graduates.

Murray resident Herbert Wilson learned just two hours before the event that Nader was speaking. "I thought it would be interesting to hear what Nader had to say," Wilson said. "I think he makes sense."

"We're not here because we're politically against Cheney," St. George resident Annette Everett said. "We're here because we're supporting our son."

Nader was a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2004 and first gained fame for consumer advocacy. In addition to heralding the "moral courage" of the student organizer of the alternative commencement, he railed against the auto industry, the U.S. tax system, the two-party political system, materialism, minimum wage, health care and false advertising.

Other alternative commencement speakers included former U.S. Senate candidate Pete Ashdown and Jack Healey, who led Amnesty International for 12 years.

They both called the student organizers heroes for the criticism they received from many people in the community. They also lauded them for personal sacrifices made to assemble the program at the same time they were taking final exams.

Student organizer Ashley Sanders, who graduated Thursday in English from BYU, even tried to enroll in a medical test to raise some funds for the event. However, the researchers of the study determined she didn't qualify to participate.

The event cost $20,000 but was free to the public. Student organizer Eric Bybee emptied his bank account to reserve the McKay Events Center.

Private donors provided the money — $6,000 more than needed, in fact. The extra money will be donated to local charities, Sanders said.

E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com