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Ashleen Knutson went to the College of St. Catherine because she believed she'd learn how to "lead and influence."

So when the women's school denied a request to have former presidential candidate Hillary Rodman Clinton speak on campus, the 22-year-old senior was angered and disappointed.

"I think it sends a message when St. Kate denies having strong, influential leaders, male or female, on campus to speak," she said.

On Monday, Knutson protested the college's refusal to host a handful of political figures -- including Clinton, conservative commentator Bay Buchanan and Minnesota's Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken -- in its effort to show neutrality during a tense election season.

About 30 students stood on the steps of Derham Hall, the school's administration building, holding signs and wearing pins that read: "We do not lead neutral lives." Some wore tape over their mouths as a gesture of being silenced.

The women argued for more student involvement in campus decisions and read a petition, signed by more than 220 people, that denounces the St. Paul school's "embarrassing" decision.

Protesters will discuss their issues with college administrators today as part of a student government meeting, said Brian Bruess, vice president for enrollment and dean of student affairs.

Administrators have defended their actions, saying the decisions were made based on each request's individual merits, in accordance with well-worn policies and often on very short notice.

"We didn't ban anyone from campus," said Colleen Hegranes, senior vice president for academic affairs. She pointed out that when the college declined Franken's request to speak, they suggested he distribute campaign literature in the atrium of its Coeur de Catherine, as its "Political Activity Policy" outlines. His staff declined.

Based on its policy and rules guiding nonprofit organizations, when a political figure requests an audience at the college, the school must offer the same opportunity to the opposing party, Bruess said. "It's about balance."

So the college would allow Michelle Obama to speak on campus -- as she did at Macalester College earlier this month -- if Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin or Cindy McCain spoke there soon after.

"We know that there are ways to have people on campus," Hegranes said. "But we need to do it in a way that honors the intellectual as well as legal ways of going about it." • 612-673-7168 • 612-673-4482