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Inside Politics

Students filibuster against Frist at his alma mater

By Elizabeth Landau
Special to CNN

The mock filibuster at Princeton University started April 26 and has continued nonstop since then.
Princeton University
Bill Frist

PRINCETON, New Jersey -- Princeton University students are showing support for the filibuster by staging their own.

For the last two weeks, students, faculty and congressmen have kept the filibuster going around the clock, reading everything from Einstein's classic papers to the "Q" section of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

They're showing support for the practice of speaking for long periods to block pending legislation. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a 1974 Princeton graduate, has threatened to use the "nuclear option," reducing the number of votes needed to stop a filibuster if Democrats use the tactic to try to block some of President Bush's judicial nominees.

The mock filibuster has been going on in front of the Frist Campus Center, which was built with a $25 million donation from the senator's family. Frist's son Harrison is a junior at Princeton.

A showdown over the nominees could come next week, Frist told CNN.

In D.C., protesters plan to filibuster all day Wednesday at the reflecting pool on the Mall and expect to be joined by senators Thursday morning before a press conference.

Democrats and Republicans have used the filibuster in the Senate to slow or derail legislation.

At Princeton, Republicans, Democrats, independents and libertarians have expressed support of the filibuster by taking the microphone, although a group of Republican students protested the filibuster while NBC cameras rolled last week.

"It speaks to underlying democratic values," said Jason Vagliano, a senior from Brookline, Massachusetts. "The essence of it is bipartisan."

The activists have made the exterior of Frist Campus Center look like camp. Filibusterers read in front of or under a large rainbow umbrella, and supporters sit under a blue tent watching and blogging., the student activists' Web site, gives a national audience live footage from the filibuster site through a Webcam, and also provides a blog and tips for starting filibuster protests on other campuses.

Other protests have been organized at Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Boston College, Tufts, Yale, University of Texas-Austin, and Carleton College in the past three weeks, though none have lasted as long as the one at Princeton.

At Princeton filibusterers can read, say, or do whatever they want during their allotted time slot, political or not, said organizer Karen Wolfgang, a junior from Portland Oregon. Some, like senior Sarah Barbrow, stuck political commentary into their readings. In her dramatic rendition of the Dr. Seuss story "What Was I Scared Of?" in which the main character is scared of a pair of pants, she put down the book and told the small audience, "These pants are pretty scary, guys. Just like Frist."

Other students have brought original creations. Brad Friedman, a senior in the computer science department, used his study of language modeling to create a unique text merging the Gettysburg Address, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and former President Clinton's Monica Lewinsky trial testimony.

"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and "Godel's Incompleteness Theorem" were also featured during filibusters.

The protest did not begin with a centralized group of students. While a small core group started with what was to be a 12-hour protest, other students wanted to take the protest overnight, and because there was enough interest, the filibuster continued beyond that. Organizers noted that many coordinators hadn't met each other before the second week, as the movement grew so "organically."

"We really thought it would not go beyond the first day, but so many people wanted to sign up," said Asheeh Siddique, a sophomore organizer from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Notable appearances have included U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, and Frank Pallone Jr., D-New Jersey, and Pennsylvania Senate candidate Chuck Pennachio. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek also filibustered.

"We're taking the message from Frist's alma mater to his doorstep, and we believe it's critical for American democracy that he hears it," said Ben Strauss, a graduate student organizer.

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