By Kevn Loker, C2M Executive Editor

When an elected official — or any other successful public figure — returns upon invitation to his or her alma mater, they usually receive a warm welcome.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s situation is a bit more complicated.

A potential 200 Mason students, faculty, alumni and community members will be on site to protest Cuccinelli’s law school visit slated for 5 p.m. Tuesday evening, according to Robert Pilaud, past president of the George Mason University School of Law (GMUSL) Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Law Association (GALLA) and current secretary of the Lambda Alumni Chapter of the George Mason University Alumni Association.

The protest comes over two weeks after a letter the attorney general wrote to Virginia universities was leaked to the public.
In the letter, Cuccinelli gave a legal opinion advising the state institutions to remove ‘sexual orientation,’ ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’ from the language of their nondiscrimination policies on the basis of current Virginia state law as determined by the General Assembly. [An op-ed written by the attorney general defending his position can be found in today’s Opinion section.]

The letter sparked an onslaught of outrage across the state, with online social media websites Twitter and Facebook harboring the most intensity and anger. Ken Cuccinelli’s fan page in particular was bombarded with personal attacks and messages; some said that he lacked the people’s support, others called him homophobic and others said that the AG’s letter belonged “in the garbage.”

But the protest at Mason won’t be the state’s first. Earlier this month, more than 1,000 people demonstrated at Virginia Commonwealth University in opposition to Cuccinelli’s letter, marching their protest to the steps of the capitol in Richmond.

“We found out mid-Spring Break that [Cuccinelli] was going to be on campus,” said Cathryn “Kate” Oakley, the current president of GALLA who has taken the lead in organizing Tuesday’s protest.

“We’re not in any position to march on the capitol ourselves . . . [but] we have a unique opportunity to make our voice heard.

Cuccinelli, an alum of both Mason’s graduate program and the university’s law school, was invited to speak at his alma mater shortly after being elected attorney general last fall and long before recent uproar. According to Assistant Dean for Management and Planning Rich Kelsey, reaching out to Viginia’s attorney general is tradition, and logical.

“We try to get every AG we can,” said Kelsey, referencing the educational significance of having an attorney general speak at a law school. “[The position is] the top legal office in Virginia.” The last four attorney generals have all spoken at the law school, including the state’s current governor, Bob McDonnell.

And Cuccinelli’s status is further special to the greater university — he’s also the highest elected state public official to have graduated from Mason.

“It’s important in our protest that we’re respectful of Cuccinelli’s role and legal opinion,” said Oakley, emphasizing her hope that protesters remain positive in their signs and chants, while still admitting that the AG’s opinion, right or wrong, does hold power in the state of Virginia. “As a Mason alum, he has some sort of sense of what he’s doing.”

“He has excellent training,” she said.

A Greater Goal of the Demonstration?
Though the flier for the protest says the demonstration and rally is in response to the attorney general’s appearance and specifically in response to Cuccinelli’s letter, Oakley said she also hopes their efforts make a point to university administration.

Shortly after the letter went public, Rector Ernst Volgenau sent a message to all Mason students, faculty and staff emphasizing the Board of Visitors’ commitment to the issue and the embracement of diversity “which has become [the university’s] hallmark.” Vice President of University Life Sandra Hubler Scherrens sent out a similar message to University Life staff, emphasizing the Core Value “Embrace Our Differences,” and calling for reaffirmation of the office’s core values with its daily interactions with students.

Another joint-statement in response to Connect2Mason inquiry by Assistant to the President and Director of Equity and Diversity Services Corey Jackson, Provost Peter Stearns and Senior Vice President Maurice Scherrens, echoed similar language, saying that “the university community, including the LGBTQ community, can be assured of our unwavering commitment to nondiscrimination.”

Oakley says she thinks the response is missing something.

“I felt that the response that Mason sent out didn’t really go far enough in standing up for the LGBTQ community,” said Oakley. “I felt that [it] was pretty wishy-washy. I didn’t think that was really ‘standing up.’ It doesn’t show a real commitment.”

Protest organizers are additionally circulating a petition in hopes of receiving more concrete support from university administration. The petition, which will be circulated at Tuesday’s protest as well as online, calls for “the president and Board of Visitors of George Mason University [to] defend vigorously the current nondiscrimination policy of the university and change it only if ordered to do so by a court of last resort.”

Current university policy (1201) does include sexual orientation as a protected class as part of the university’s “institutional commitment to nondiscrimination.” In light of Cuccinelli’s letter, however, the policy’s legality within state law is more than fuzzy.

The Board of Visitors’ agenda for March 24, the day after the protest, includes an executive session for consultation with legal counsel. The number one and two items are ‘Pending Litigation’ and ‘Attorney General Advice.’ The Board of Visitors were not available for comment when Broadside went to press.

Senior Vice President Maurice Scherrens did confirm, however, that the university may receive further correspondence from the AG’s office in the near future regarding the legality of the current policy. He also commented on legal collaboration with other state universities.

“Since all Virginia state colleges and universities have similar non-discrimination policies, I do expect that the schools will get together and discuss what response, if any, is most appropriate,” Scherrens said. “I think it would be a most powerful response to have a unanimous position taken by all institutions, but that is a decision that every institution will need to make.”

Event Details: Protest and Law School Event
The protest, which has largely been organized through a Facebook event, is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m., an hour before the law school event, and will be accompanied by a rally. Virginia Delegate Adam Ebbin, Arlington County Chairman Jay Fisette, Former Virginia Delegate Steve Shannon, the university’s Associate Director for LGBTQ Resources Richard Chollar and Mason student and alumni leaders have been confirmed as speakers.

According to Oakley, the protest and rally will occur despite possible rainfall.

“It’s a rain or shine sort of thing,” said Oakley. “We’re there because the Attorney General is there.”
The law school event is closed to Mason Law School students and faculty with a valid ID. Oakley said she encourages any interested law school students to attend the attorney general’s speech and, if they so wish, to ask questions regarding the nondiscrimination policy.

As of Friday, Cuccinelli said he had no plans for his speech to directly address nondiscrimination policy and/or his now well-publicized letter at Tuesday’s event.
“Someone may have a question,” he said. “I have a nasty habit of frequently answering questions asked of me.”