Amid his discussion of national issues before the federal judiciary, Judge Samuel Alito, President Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court, was also asked about issues important to students, with onlookers on different sides of the ideological spectrum drawing different conclusions about his views.

Yesterday, on the fourth day of the confirmation hearings, several senators on the Judiciary Committee questioned Alito’s record on the free speech rights of students and protection policies for gay and lesbian students.

Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) questioned the nominee on his vote to strike down a public school policy that prohibited offensive conduct toward individuals based on sexual orientation or other personal characteristics in 2001. In the case, Alito ruled that the First Amendment only protects people against harassment regarding religious beliefs.

Feingold asked Alito whether he felt the First Amendment might also protect gay students against harassment. Alito said only that the policy he struck down read the amendment too broadly.

“It not only prohibited the expression of political viewpoints, but it went so far as to say that just about anything that any student would say about another student that would be offensive to that student, including comments on the way the student dressed or the things that they liked to do, would be a violation of the anti-harassment policy,” Alito said.

Some advocates of free speech on campus generally have supported Alito’s ruling in the case, Saxe v. State College Area School District.

“I see Alito as generally supportive of the First Amendment in areas ranging from student speech to commercial speech,” said Gene Policinski, the executive director at the First Amendment Center, a conservative advocacy group devoted to protecting First Amendment freedoms.

In other cases, Alito voted to strike down a Pennsylvania law in a 2004 case that prohibited college newspapers from taking money for alcohol advertisements, and said that the removal of a kindergarten student’s picture of Jesus from a school wall violated the child’s freedom of religious expression.

The hearing yesterday included discussion of affirmative action and diversity in classrooms. When Feingold asked Alito whether state has a “compelling interest” to promote diversity in the classroom, Alito said that the Supreme Court already established precedents that states do have such interest.

However, Shirley Wilcher, the interim executive director at American Association for Affirmative Action, said that Alito’s philosophy on affirmative action is “troubling.”

“Affirmative action programs provide opportunities for women and [minorities] who have been historically excluded from institutions of higher education, employment and business opportunities,” Wilcher said. “We are seriously concerned about the future of affirmative action under both [Chief Justice John] Roberts and Alito, along with [Justices Clarence] Thomas and [Antonin] Scalia.”

Throughout the hearings, which have alargely focused on Alito’s judiciary philosophy on the death penalty, immigration, gun control and domestic spying, Republican lawmakers have generally exhibited strong support for President Bush’s third Supreme Court nominee, while Democratic senators have repeatedly called the judge’s credibility into quesation, saying that his responses to their questions have frequently been evasive and incomplete.

The Republicans hope that the committee will vote on Tuesday to send Alito to the full Senate for confirmation, although the Democrats have said that they would prefer a later date. If Alito is confirmed by the committee, his nomination will move to the full Senate for approval. The Republicans hold a majority of 55 seats in the Senate.

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