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Protests over sexual assault commentary don't derail George Will's speech at Michigan State

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EAST LANSING, Michigan — Protests took place both outside and inside Michigan State University's graduation ceremonies Saturday over comments commencement speaker George Will had previously made about sexual assault reporting at colleges.

Will didn't mention the protests during his speech to undergraduates on the East Lansing campus. More than a dozen students stood as he spoke and turned their backs to him, and several others in the audience did the same or held up newspapers, the Lansing State Journal reported. About 200 demonstrators had gathered outside.

Activists had delivered petitions signed by tens of thousands of people to university officials this week opposing Will's speech because of his commentaries. In a June column, Will questioned statistics cited by President Barack Obama's administration and suggested that federal authorities were making "victimhood a coveted status."

University President Lou Anna Simon said in an online statement that the decision to invite Will was made before the column. She says his appearance doesn't mean she or the school agrees with his statements but universities should serve "the public good by creating space for discourse and exchange of ideas."

Will has said he was criticizing loss of due process for those accused of the serious crime. Critics say the columnist has a "track record of downplaying the seriousness of rape."

Will, who once taught political philosophy at Michigan State, said he is "still a Spartan who takes equal pleasure from good MSU football seasons and dismal ones in Ann Arbor," referring to the University of Michigan.

PHOTO: Protesters hold signs outside the Breslin Center Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, as they rally against the selection of conservative columnist George Will as the keynote speaker at Michigan State University's commencement for his recent remarks made about sexual assault reporting at colleges, in Saint Johns, Mich. (AP Photo/The State Journal, Robert Killips )  NO SALES
Protesters hold signs outside the Breslin Center Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, as they rally against the selection of conservative columnist George Will as the keynote speaker at Michigan State University's commencement for his recent remarks made about sexual assault reporting at colleges, in Saint Johns, Mich. (AP Photo/The State Journal, Robert Killips ) NO SALES

Connie Rzemien, whose daughter, Katie, was among those graduating, told The Detroit News she thought Will was not the right choice.

"I believe it is contradictory to what they are doing here to have somebody with such an insensitive view of rape to speak today," she said. "I think it's insulting to young women."

The U.S. Education Department this year revealed a list of dozens of colleges under investigation for the way they handle sexual abuse allegations, and Michigan State was among them. University officials created a task force to identify ways to reduce sexual violence and misconduct as well as increase reporting when it happens.

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan spoke Friday. The institution had faced outrage after a Rolling Stone article about a gang rape at a fraternity house that wasn't prosecuted, though the magazine later said it couldn't stand by its reporting because of discrepancies.

Sullivan has said the university's long-held concerns about sexual assault and alcohol use were heightened by the article.

Documentary filmmaker, author and Flint-area native Michael Moore spoke to graduates Saturday afternoon. The outspoken, activist auteur joked that he was the "noncontroversial commencement" speaker, MLive.com reported.

"I'm pleased to be the mainstream speaker here today," said Moore, whose films include "Roger & Me," ''Fahrenheit 9/11," ''Sicko" and "Capitalism: A Love Story."

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PHOTO: Elaine Foster from Ann Arbor, protests the selection of conservative columnist George Will as the keynote speaker at Michigan State University's commencement for his recent remarks made about sexual assault reporting at colleges,  Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, in Saint Johns, Mich. (AP Photo/The State Journal, Robert Killips )  NO SALES
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