An afterthought on the Levasseur appearance that didn't happen
December 03, 2009
By Stephanie Kraft
Many years ago I was chatting with local American Civil Liberties
Union attorney Bill Newman about the meaning of freedom of speech.
The concept of free speech, he said, "has a lot of corners. It
includes the right to hear."
That had never occurred to me. But as I thought of countries where
people were at the mercy of government-sponsored news and propaganda
programs and had to use underground methods to get information, it made sense.
I've thought of that conversation at least six times a day since the
recent sequence of events at UMass involving Ray Luc Levasseur.
In 1989, this newspaper covered the long, expensive sedition trial in
which Levasseur and his associates, known then as the Ohio Seven,
were acquitted by a jury in Springfield. Our very able reporter, Kris
Hundley, had a passionate interest in the sedition issue and the
militants in the dock. I didn't want to dampen her enthusiasm, but
personally I was irritated, not only by the violent means the
defendants had used to call attention to what they saw as abuses, but
even more by what I saw as the arrogance of those actions.
To use violence is to be so arrogant, so sure that one is right. I
had a doctorate in English and had written a dissertation on George
Eliot, who spoke of "that fragmentary, doubt-provoking knowledge
which we call truth." People who turn to violence are past doubt;
they're more certain of whatever they're certain of than anyone has a
right to be in this life, and people who felt that they were so
rightso past the need to learn that they could justifiably commit
acts with irrevocable physical effectsturned me off.
Twenty years passed, 15 with Levasseur in jail. A month ago his name
crossed my desk again. Levasseur. Coming to UMass to speak. We can't
cover everyone who comes to speak. What was the news here?
The news was that Amherst was blowing up. State police (a group
closely tied to the state political machine) whose colleague had been
killed by one of Levasseur's group in the '80s were determined that
Levasseur wasn't coming to UMass. They lobbied legislators. They
lobbied the governor. They lobbied the U.S. Parole Commission. The
meeting, cancelled, reorganized and cancelled again, didn't happen.
It wouldn't be easy to argue that prior restraint was an issue since
the speech was notnot officiallycancelled by government fiat. And
the situation wasn't without humor; that a quiet department like
Special Collections and Archives had unintentionally started up one
of the biggest conflagrations in town in years was hilarious. Who'd
have imagined such a thing?
But the point left out in the back-and-forth about whether or not
Levasseur had a right to speak was this: what about those who wanted
to hear him? What about scholars with specialties in history and the
issue of sedition who wanted Levasseur at the podium, not to turn him
into a folk hero, but to see if his speech would offer explicit or
implicit answers to the question, Why did you turn to violence?
The period in which Levasseur and his United Freedom Front were
active spawned a crop of militant groups, including the Symbionese
Liberation Army. Why? We don't always have such a proliferation of
such groups, and now that both the militants and the rest of us can
take some distance, there's good reason for inquiring about why we did then.
But the Advocate is biased in favor of dissidents, say some readers.
Less true that I have a bias in favor of people who blow up
courthouses than that I, who had academic interests, have a bias in
favor of those who wanted to hear Levasseur, just as I have a bias in
favor of those (myself included) who wanted to hear Iranian president
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he appeared at Columbia University and on
To want to hear is not to glorify. To want to hear is to want to
assess our adversaries and gain ground in the struggle to understand
their thoughtto form our own opinions, not simply take the word of
the government or whoever controls the flow of information if that
flow is not free.