Ayers draws crowd, few protesters, to speech at UW
April 28, 2010
LARAMIE Weeks of controversy over academic freedom and William
Ayers' militant past ended Wednesday night as the 1960s
radical-turned-academic delivered a largely anticlimactic lecture on
education reform at the University of Wyoming.
By attempting to deny his right to speak, the University of Wyoming
denied its core mission of knowledge and learning, Ayers said before
launching into a speech at the packed UniWyo Sports Complex.
Ayers, who co-founded the militant anti-war group the Weather
Underground in 1969, addressed a crowd of more than 1,100 one day
after a federal judge ruled that the university could not deny him
the right to speak on campus. The invitation to speak sparked outrage
among some Wyoming residents and school alumni, who objected to
Ayers' role in a series of bombings of government buildings in
protest of the Vietnam War.
Addressing the media beforehand, Ayers said he would have given the
speech even if he'd been as "sick as a dog."
"Because in my view, when the people gather at the gates of an
institution like this, with pitchforks and torches, and say the
things that were being said, that they would burn the place down,"
Ayers told reporters. "And I was told several times in e-mails that
they were going to take me out to the Matthew Shepard fence and teach
me a lesson. That's exactly when I'm going to show up."
Roughly 1,100 people went through bag and coat searches to enter the
event at a campus gym. About 10 protesters gathered outside the gym's
entrance, carrying American flags and denouncing Ayers for his
anti-war activities in the Vietnam era.
UW's Social Justice Research Center had invited Ayers to speak on
campus earlier this month, but rescinded the invitation in the face
of fierce opposition to the university giving a venue to the former
militant and '60s radical. Student Meg Lanker offered a second
invitation, but the school, citing security threats, banned him from
speaking on campus.
Judge William Downes rejected the school's argument. Before Ayers
spoke Wednesday, Lanker told the crowd she didn't receive any threats
"I did get a lot of nasty e-mails but ... it was mostly comments
about my appearance," she said.
Ayers' past became a political issue during the 2008 presidential
campaign because President Barack Obama had served with Ayers on the
board of a Chicago charity. Republican vice presidential candidate
Sarah Palin accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists."
Obama has condemned Ayers' radical activities, and there's no
evidence they were ever close friends or that Ayers advised Obama on policy.
Outside the venue, a group of about 10 people gathered in the snow
carrying signs that made references to the professor's radical
past.There were no reports of security problems as the speech began Wednesday.
As a gallery of journalists looked on, some protesters exchanged
words with people who were attending the speech.
"Supporting Ayers is supporting terrorism," UW student Chesney
Rathbun yelled to a group of people as they walked by.
Rathbun, a senior who's studying business administration, said Ayers
can talk about whatever he wants, but shouldn't have been invited to
do so on campus.
"We are not here to protest about education reform," he said, in
reference to the subject Ayers was originally invited to speak about.
"We are here to protest the condoning of a terrorist on campus here."
Other students felt that the school was an appropriate venue for the
speech. "It's a college campus," said UW graduate student Andrew
Young, who didn't attend the speech and said he was more concerned
with his research. "It is the thing that should be going on here."
Dane Jensen, another graduate student, said allowing Ayers to speak
was a matter of fairness. "We let Dick Cheney speak, so we should let
the left-wing guy speak," he said.
With finals set to begin Monday, schoolwork took precedence over the
speech for many students.
Freshman Asa Erlewin said he's been paying some attention to the
controversy. But instead of attending the speech, he was focused on
his chemistry lab.
"It hasn't been a real big deal to me," he said while studying in the
Sitting next to him, sophomore Sarah Cheeney said she hasn't been
following the debate over Ayers.
"I'd rather focus on school," she said.
Most students will forget the controversy by the fall semester, said
Brian Profaizer, the president of the University of Wyoming Campus
Conservatives. Profaizer helped lead opposition to the speech, but
said most students don't share his passion on the issue.
Last week, during the height of the debate, Profaizer said he spoke
with one student who had no idea about the controversy.
"I don't think hardly anybody cares anymore," he said. "At least
among the student body."