Bob Kerrey rescinded his acceptance of Creighton University's invitation to be its 2019 commencement speaker in a letter stating that he does not want that moment of celebration to be "interrupted with politics."
Kerrey's withdrawal came after the executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party objected to his appearance at Creighton because of his pro-choice voting record as a former member of the U.S. Senate.
"Nebraska is a pro-life state," Ryan Hamilton had stated in declaring the GOP's opposition to Creighton's choice of Kerrey as its commencement speaker on May 18.
Creighton University President Daniel Hendrickson said he appreciates Kerrey's "desire to not have the focus of the day shifted away from our students" and said Creighton will welcome Kerrey to its campus as a speaker in its presidential lecture series later this year.
"I firmly believe that Senator Kerrey's substantial resume and experience will make for an interesting and educational event for the university community," Hendrickson said.
Kerrey is also a former Democratic governor of Nebraska and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his military service as a Navy SEAL in the Vietnam War during which he was wounded in combat and lost most of his right leg.
In a letter sent to Republican State Chairman Dan Welch and Hamilton, Kerrey asked: "Do you intend to continue to demand that universities not invite speakers if they disagree with your views?"
"Does the Nebraska Republican Party allow Nebraskans to join your organization if they support the civil right of women to make reproductive decisions that the U.S. Supreme Court established in 1973 in a 7-2 decision joined by three of President Nixon's four appointees?"
Kerrey told the GOP leaders that he "was confident you would do what you could to disrupt my speech and thus disrupt the celebration of graduating Creighton students."
Responding to Kerrey, Hamilton said: "We have nothing but the greatest respect for Bob Kerrey's service record and commitment to country."
But it was "right (that) he withdraw" as Creighton's commencement speaker, Hamilton said. "We disagree that the decision is political; opposition to partial-birth abortion has more to do with compassion, justice and humanity than with politics."
In his letter, Kerrey asked the Republican officials to "release to the public all emails and text messages to and from yourself in the past 30 days that contain the words 'Kerrey' and 'Creighton' in the subject line."
"I believe you need to be completely transparent so Nebraskans can know how you reached this decision," he wrote.
Speaking on the floor of the Legislature during debate later Monday morning, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha suggested that the GOP's pro-life position is "hypocritical" in view of its support for the death penalty.
"What becomes of freedom of speech?" Chambers asked.
Democratic State Chair Jane Kleeb said "Senator Kerrey lives his life defending our country and freedom of speech (and) has put his life on the line to defend our American values."
"The Nebraska GOP is taking a page out of President Trump's playbook," Kleeb said. "They are applauding Trump's executive order on freedom of speech on college campuses while at the same time bullying a private university to cancel a speech because they do not agree with Senator Kerrey's words."
In his letter to Hendrickson, Kerrey expressed his appreciation for the Creighton president's willingness "not to back down (in the face of) demands that your invitation be rescinded."
"My son is one of your graduates, and I feel a deep indebtedness to Creighton for the good you have done my family," Kerrey wrote.
Hamilton had earlier written that "Creighton is a Jesuit institution formally affiliated with the Catholic Church, one of the country's most consistent and reliable advocates for pro-life causes."
Kerrey, he said, had "voted five separate times against banning the grisly and inhumane practice of partial-birth abortion while in the United States Senate" and had a lifetime score with the National Right to Life of 4 percent.