Ayers says canceled appearance teaches 'terrible lessons'
By Melissa Jenco | Daily Herald Staff
Controversial author Bill Ayers says separate decisions by school
officials and a bookshop owner to cancel his scheduled appearances
next week in Naperville are "absurd" and "outrageous."
The University of Illinois-Chicago education professor was booked to
speak at Naperville North High School and Anderson's Bookshop, but
plans for both were scrapped Monday after heavy criticism from some
portions of the community.
"This cancellation provides terrible lessons for these young people
about the limits of freedom and the importance of obedience, and it
must be painful for many of them to watch people they admire collapse
under pressure," Ayers wrote Tuesday in an e-mail. "It has all the
hallmarks of suppression of speech: incitement of fear, intimidation
of well-meaning folks, mob rule."
Critics, on the other hand, argued Ayers, a Glen Ellyn native, isn't
the type of speaker who should be allowed to speak to students in a
tax-supported high school.
Before his college teaching days, Ayers co-founded the Weather
Underground, an anti-Vietnam war group responsible for a series of
bombings at public buildings in the 1960s and '70s. He had faded from
the spotlight in recent years until the presidential election, in
which his ties to President Barack Obama were called into question.
Naperville North history teacher Kermit Eby was once Ayers' student
and invited him to speak at the school. Students were required to
obtain parental permission to attend.
But when some District 203 parents and community members learned
early last week of Ayers' scheduled appearance, they flooded the
district with angry phone calls and e-mails. Critics commenting on
newspaper Web sites and contacting school administrators repeatedly
referred to Ayers as a terrorist.
In a districtwide e-mail Monday, Naperville Unit District 203
Superintendent Alan Leis announced the cancellation, saying, "Any
value to our students would be lost in such a highly charged
atmosphere and any debate of issues or viewpoints would be
overshadowed by media coverage and anger over the event itself."
Leis told the Daily Herald he initially thought Ayers would be an
interesting speaker because of his connections to the presidential
election. But he said he became more troubled as he did more
research, and, "it's very hard to figure out who this guy is."
"It is truly amazing the level of anger and emotion around this
issue," Leis said Monday.
Ayers spoke with the Daily Herald by phone Tuesday and said he
believes he has been inaccurately portrayed by his critics.
"There's not a shred of truth in what was said by Fox News or
right-wing bloggers," he said. "They've got this caricature they're
beating up, but it's not me."
Ayers said while it's true his Weather Underground group
intentionally broke the law, he never hurt or killed anyone and has
"met his judicial obligations." He said he condemns acts of terror
and has never advocated violence.
Although he says he has regrets about some of his actions, opposing
the Vietnam War isn't one of them.
"People could say they disagree or I'm nuts or despicable, but they
would have to know the U.S. government ... was killing 6,000 people a
week," he said. "That was also despicable."
Among those lining up to disagree with Ayers' views is Sol Stern,
senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, who
has studied the educator and is writing a book about him.
Stern blasted Ayers in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last fall,
saying Ayers' "hatred of America is as virulent as when he planted a
bomb at the Pentagon."
Stern went on to call Ayers a "school destroyer" in his essay and
said his education reform movement is "bringing radical social
justice teaching into our public school classrooms."
Asked what he would have discussed with Naperville students, Ayers
said he couldn't summarize his presentation in a sentence or two and
pointed to his blog entries at billayers.org about democracy in education.
He said the issue isn't about what he would have said; it's about
being allowed to say it.
"To me (banning the talk) runs against the spirit of what they think
they're defending," he said. "If they think they're defending
democracy, what better way to defend it than to allow a conversation
and defeat the noxious ideas in a public square, not suppress them."
Naperville North is not the only school to cancel one of his talks.
Ayers was scheduled to speak at Boston College Monday via satellite -
a compromise from the original plan to speak in person - but the
college canceled both events because of the backlash from area
residents and police officers, according to The Boston Globe. The
Weather Underground allegedly was involved in a 1970 bank robbery
that killed a Boston police officer, the newspaper reported.
While Naperville students may not hear Ayers speak, students from
Highland Park High School recently did.
In January, Ayers spoke with about 80 students and faculty during an
after-school event held on campus. His talk was sponsored by the
Highland Park Young Democrats, a club made up of students but not
sponsored by the school.
Those there say Ayers spoke about a variety of topics, including the
death penalty, war crimes, human rights, the recent election, his
children and his time in the Weather Underground.
Science teacher Jonathan Weiland, who informally supervises the club,
said Ayers did not advocate violence when talking to students during
the event or at a dinner afterward. According to Weiland, Ayers said
he was not proud of what he had done but pointed to others who he
felt had done worse during the Vietnam War.
Weiland called the speech a successful event and a good opportunity
"I think school should be about the education of people and it was
one opportunity of thousands that students have at our school and any
school to see living history," Weiland said.
Also among those there was Highland Park junior Joey Kalmin, a
self-described conservative Republican who strongly supported John
McCain in the presidential race.
Kalmin said in talking with Ayers he found him to be "a nice guy and
I still disagree with him on 99.5 percent of what he said."
Nice guy or not, Kalmin said he considers Ayers a criminal because of
his past and feels another setting may have been more appropriate. He
said he attended the talk in an effort to be open-minded and hear
another point of view.
"If I wanted to hear my own opinion," he said, "I could yell it in the mirror."
Common sense or anti-American? Feelings strong on Ayers cancellation
By Matt Arado | Daily Herald Staff
When it comes to a public figure like Bill Ayers, there is little
The decisions by a Naperville high school and bookstore to cancel
scheduled Ayers appearances have been both applauded as victories for
common sense and decried as violations of free speech.
"He's a renegade radical who has shown no contrition for what he
did," said Park Ridge resident Tom Roeser, a conservative commentator
with a weekly radio show on WLS AM-890. "I think the cancellations
were very appropriate."
"I'm amused when people claim loyalty and fealty to the First
Amendment on one hand, but then can't wait to try to stop someone
they disagree with from speaking," said Ed Yohnka, director of
communication for the Illinois office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Officials at Naperville North High School decided earlier this week
to cancel a previously scheduled talk by Ayers after receiving a
flood of angry calls and e-mails from community members. Anderson's
Bookshop in Naperville also canceled a scheduled appearance, citing
Ayers, a Glen Ellyn native who is now an education professor at the
University of Illinois at Chicago, co-founded the Weather
Underground, an anti-Vietnam war group responsible for bombings at a
series of public buildings in the 1960s and 1970s. His name surfaced
in the recent presidential election, when Republican
vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin repeatedly referred to him as
an unrepentant terrorist and questioned his ties to President Obama,
then the Democratic presidential nominee. After the cancellations,
Ayers told the Daily Herald that he condemns acts of terror and has
never advocated violence.
Roeser, a former teacher, said he thinks it was misguided to invite
Ayers to speak in the first place.
"I don't believe it's appropriate to bring an unapologetic terrorist
into a school," he said. "I don't think the spirit of free speech
allows for that kind of person to speak to young people.
"I'm also a firm believer in bringing a balance of viewpoints into a
school. If you're going to bring someone who speaks for a particular
side, you should also bring someone from the other side. Debates are
an excellent way to get kids interested in a topic."
Yohnka said people troubled by Ayers' views or past actions could
have made that known by not attending his talks.
"There are lots of speakers I don't agree with, and I simply make the
decision not to go see them," he said. "I don't try to make sure that
nobody can see them."
When asked if their views would change if the canceled speaker had
protested by bombing abortion clinics instead of government
buildings, Roeser and Yohnka both said no.
"I would not stop such a person from speaking, no," Yohnka said.
"Again, if I wasn't interested in hearing what he or she had to say,
I'd just stay home."
Roeser said that, as in the case of Ayers, he believes it would be
inappropriate to invite to a school someone who protested through
criminal acts of violence. He added that if a school decided to
invite a legitimate anti-abortion activist to speak, it should also
invite someone who supports abortion rights.
"Again, I think showing a debate between the two viewpoints is what
would be valuable for the students," he said.
McCarthyism Lives, Just Ask Bill Ayers
By Matthew Rothschild
April 4, 2009
You remember Bill Ayers? He's the former Weather Underground leader
who has since had a distinguished academic career, teaching education
at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
You'll recall that his name surfaced during the Obama campaign as
Palin and McCain tried to smear Obama with the old guilt-by-association brush.
When that failed, I thought Ayers could go back to his life, and we
could all grow up.
So did he. But no such luck.
"I thought it would end," he tells me, "but it's escalated in a very
weird way. I was canceled at a University last December, and then at
the College of DuPage."
Earlier this week, Boston College yanked Ayers. "After meetings
between administrators and students, the decision was made to rescind
the invitation," spokesman Jack Dunn said, according to the Boston
Herald. "We feel the appropriate decision has been reached."
Also this week, Naperville High School, near where Ayers grew up,
changed its mind and said no to Ayers. According to the local Daily
Herald, the superintendent had received "more than 100 e-mails and
numerous phone calls." "It just wasn't appropriate," said
Superintendent Alan Leis. "Any value here is completely lost. It is
truly amazing the level of anger and emotion around this issue."
To cap off the week of suppression, Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville
cancelled a book signing by Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine
Dohrn. They were to discuss their new book, "Race Course: Against
White Supremacy," published by Third World Press. The bookstore, in a
statement, said it canceled the book talk "due to our concerns about
the safety of our customers and staff." It added, "We are not happy
about having to make this decision. . . . This week freedom of speech
The bookstore cancellation "never happened to me before. They were
literally in tears when they called," he says. "I always feel bad for
people who do the wrong thing."
Ayers takes it all in stride, though he's concerned about the climate at large.
"I don't feel like I'm the aggrieved party," he says. "I've got a day
job and book deadlines I've got to work on. But it's an attempt to
shut down conversation and dialogue, which is the lifeblood of
democracy. The real danger isn't to me. But there's a sense that if
the mob gathers outside the gate with torches and pitchforks, people collapse."
Speaker policy a lurking issue in Ayers
April 2, 2009
By Heights Editorial Board
The Issue: Ayers cancelation brings up speaker policy
What we think: University must make policy accessible to all
There is not much more The Heights can say about the recent Bill
Ayers controversy that would intellectually enrich the conversations
already being carried out in our columns, letters to the editor,
online comments, and everywhere around campus. We stand by our
sentiments published in last Monday's issue, and we would like to
hope that the University canceled the event out of the safety concern
they profess to have felt. This whole situation brings several campus
issues to light, however, that have been lying fallow in the shadows
for far too long. One of these is Boston College's speaker policy, a
topic of high import about two years ago that has received very
little attention since then.
American universities draft, adopt, and then publish speaker policies
that help outline guidelines for what does and does not constitute
proper academic discourse on a campus. Catholic universities have an
additional responsibility of making sure that their allowances fall
in line with Church teachings and pronouncements from the United
States Council of Catholic Bishops. Yet, it is important to bear in
mind that the goals of the Catholic Church and the goals of an
academy are not mutually exclusive, a pejorative assessment levied
all too often by those who perceive the Church to be a bastion of
backward sentiments; following the provisions of one does not prevent
you from following the provisions of the other. Additionally, there
is not a hierarchy at Catholic schools where the "Catholic" moniker
takes precedence over the "school" moniker, or vice versa. Catholic
universities of America are both Catholic and academic above all
else, and they are rooted in an intellectual tradition that only adds
a depth for faculty and students at such an institution. As it is
noted in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an apostolic constitution written by
Pope John Paul II that specifically addresses Catholic universities,
"In carrying out its mission to search for truth, the Catholic
university is uniquely situated to serve not only the people of God
but the entire human family 'in their pilgrimage to the transcendent
goal which gives meaning to life.'"
With these things being understood, the speaker policy of Boston
College is nowhere to be found. It is not online, and it is not
easily accessible on campus. Students are left to surmise what may or
may not be foundational elements of our speaker policy; they are
forced to argue for academic freedom by conjecturing what may or
should be present in our guidelines for hosting speakers. None of
these arguments, however, are based on a document created by the
University. This foundation for academic freedoms discourse is built
upon shifting sands.
Boston College must make its speaker policy public and readily
available to students. It should be a formal document that is
constructed by University officials for Boston College. They should
consult other Catholic schools but not rely upon them. We are our own
institution with our own set of unique circumstances that must be
taken into account.
BC's speaker policy should rely upon important documents like Ex
Corde Ecclesiae and the American Association of University
Professors' "Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers." It should also
bear in mind University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J.'s
high-minded goal of making BC the world's premier Catholic
institution of higher education. This dream necessarily entails the
ability to host speakers that represent the most excellent and
brightest thought in their area of expertise, even if they are
controversial. As the AAUP document notes, "There can be no more
appropriate site for the discussion of controversial ideas and issues
than a college or university campus." The University should also bear
in mind the distinction between allowing someone to speak and
honoring that person, with the former allowing for the free flow of
ideas and academic integrity, while the latter implies full support
for that person's views.
It is certain that there will be dissent if BC amends this situation,
but at least criticisms could be appropriately directed toward an
official pronouncement rather than a nebulous concept of what may be
the restrictions or allowances of academic discourse on campus. The
longer our speaker policy remains unclear, the more damage will be
done to BC, its students, and its faculty.
William Ayers' speech canceled in Naperville
'60s radical's speech to Naperville North High School students
canceled after public outcry
By Vikki Ortiz | Tribune reporter
March 31, 2009
Administrators in Naperville School District 203 have canceled an
April 8 appearance at Naperville North High School by 1960s radical
William Ayers, saying that any value the visit could have offered
students would have been lost in the controversy around the event.
"I simply wasn't comfortable that this was in our students' and our
school's best interest," Supt. Alan Leis said Monday. "We tried to
put some procedures in place, but clearly our community has let us
know that they just don't think that's appropriate."
Ayers, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a
former member of a group that set off bombs at government buildings
to protest the Vietnam War. Charges against him were dropped in 1973.
He was thrust into the national spotlight in the presidential
campaign last year because of his association with Barack Obama.
School officials had arranged that Ayers would only speak about his
time as a member of the radical Weather Underground, his notoriety
from the 2008 election and the "small-schools movement," which seeks
to replace big, urban schools with small facilities.
Only students who had an eighth-period class that pertained to those
topics, and who had a permission form signed by a parent, would have
been allowed to attend. But on Friday, school officials had second
thoughts about Ayers' visit because of the anger it had stirred.
"The whole notion was to help students think critically. Instead, it
was just a huge community debate," Leis said.