Seats scarce for Ashcroft's MU address

Thursday, May 16, 2002

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Seats are scarce for Attorney General John Ashcroft's commencement speech Saturday to law graduates of the University of Missouri-Columbia.

That's because the law school plans to have the Jesse Hall auditorium's roughly 1,500 seats filled with the 150 lawyers-to-be, their families and friends.

Members of the public will apparently be out of luck if they want to listen firsthand to Missouri's former U.S. senator, governor and state attorney general.

Ashcroft's public appearances in his home state have been rare since he took over last year as the nation's top law enforcement officer, and especially given demands on his time since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The university was scrambling Wednesday to give others a chance to hear Ashcroft's remarks as he delivers them Saturday afternoon, perhaps through a video hookup to overflow seating elsewhere on campus.

Demonstrations planned

"Interest is high," said university spokesman Christian Basi -- so high that rival groups criticizing and supporting Ashcroft are organizing demonstrations outside the speech site.

"Ashcroft is a very visible speaker coming to talk to our graduates and that naturally increases the number of people who want to see him," Basi said.

The university was even excluding reporters and news photographers from the auditorium, saying seating was taken.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said Wednesday in Washington that the decision to close Ashcroft's speech to the public was the university's -- not the attorney general's.

"We expected the media to be there, we always expect the media to be there," he said.

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