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Goddard Facing Criticism For Commencement Speaker

Jennifer E. Beach
This undated file photo shows Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1981 for the murder of a police officer. Goddard College announced Tuesday that Mumia Abu-Jamal's recorded remarks will be played Sunday at a commencement, along with a video about him.

Goddard College is facing a storm of criticism for inviting a man convicted of murdering a police officer to speak at the school’s commencement this weekend. The college defends the decision.

Mumia Abu-Jamal will address a small group of graduates, at one of 20 ceremonies held annually.

Abu-Jamal was convicted for the December 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He was originally on death row, but his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment without parole in 2011.

Abu-Jamal has maintained his innocence, and has written on issues of race, police brutality and discrimination.

Dustin Byerly is the associate director of alumni affairs at Goddard. He says those issues are why the students selected Abu Jamal as their speaker:

“But he also does it from a very unique vantage point, that being an imprisoned African-American male,” said Byerly. “Speaking for an under-represented and almost invisible population.”

Abu-Jamal also spoke at the school in 2008. He had earned his Bachelor of Arts from Goddard while incarcerated in 1996.

Byerly says that while feedback from students, alumni and faculty has been positive, there has been strong pushback from the law enforcement community.

“The response from the public has been negative, because of the high emotional charge surrounding the issue. And we certainly sympathize with the real feelings that arise from having Mumia speak to our students,” said Byerly. “And we respect the fact that law enforcement officers do not want to hear from him.”

Vermont Troopers Association President Michael O’Neil complained about the commencement speaker in a letter to Goddard President Robert Kenny:

“Inviting Mumia Abu-Jamal as your featured speaker demonstrates a lack of sensitivity to the Faulkner family, survivors of police officers killed in the line of duty and other survivors of deadly crimes.”

Abu-Jamal will address graduates in a pre-recorded speech Sunday.

Update: October 6, 2014 at 12:20 p.m.

A group of about 20 gathered at Goddard to protest Abu-Jamal's videotaped address Sunday, October 5. As the Times Argus reported, the invitation-only ceremony was moved from 4 p.m. to 1 p.m. The college said the time of the graduation was changed for "security and safety reasons."

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
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