Federal Judge Downes rules for Ayers
by Carol Crump
May 3, 2010
As it turned out, all Bill Ayers needed to speak on the University of
Wyoming campus was a credential he already had: his U.S. citizenship.
"This court is of age to remember the Weather Underground. When his
group was bombing the U.S. Capitol in 1971, I was serving in the
uniform of my country," said U.S. District Court Judge William
Downes. "Even to this day, when I hear that name, I can scarcely
swallow the bile of my contempt for it. But Mr. Ayers is a citizen of
the United States who wishes to speak, and he need not offer any more
justification than that."
Downes ruled in favor of the injunction filed by UW student Meghan
Lanker, Ayers and others that opened up the university for Ayers
speaking engagement. One of the co-founders of a former militant
anti-Vietnam War group called the Weather Underground spoke in the
UniWyo Sports Complex the evening after the ruling in Casper on April
27. According to media reports, the speech in Laramie was
well-attended, and did not result in any violence. Security was
provided by campus police.
The lawsuit to force the university to allow University of Illinois
at Chicago professor Ayers to speak was the result of a month-long
controversy surrounding Ayers' appearance. The original invitation to
speak had come from a campus organization, the UW Social Research
Center. The speech on educational reform that was originally
scheduled for April 5 was part of a biannual lecture series. When the
sponsoring professor withdrew the invitation to the controversial
speaker and the university banned a second campus speaking engagement
set up by Lanker, the lawsuit that Downes heard in federal court was
filed. The suit alleged that Ayer's First Amendment right to free
speech had been violated.
According to testimony by the university's legal representative, Tom
Rice, at the court hearing on April 26, the primary reason for
denying Ayers' an on-campus appearance was threats of violence
received by university employees and board members. UW President Tom
Buchanan, who acknowledged that the decision to prevent Ayers
appearance was his, blamed Ayers' radical past for what he described
as "increasingly volatile and threatening communication to the
university community." The president said his paramount concern for
the safety of UW's students, faculty, staff and visitors was
justification for the cancellation.
"The answer is not less free speech," said opposing attorney David
Lane. "The answer is more security. People like Ayers need the first
amendment protection of the marketplace of ideas the most."
Downes also heard testimony from Lanker regarding the process she
undertook trying to secure an on-campus venue and from Ayers. The
professor acknowledged that he was the "lightning rod" Downes
described, but added that in "dozens and dozens" of speaking
engagements, violence had never materialized. "This is what I do," he
said. "I write and I speak." Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder, who
spoke under subpoena, testified that he had not been contacted by the
university about any safety concerns or asked for assistance with security.
The federal judge also reviewed copies of e-mails and 30 threatening
telephone calls that were part of the court record. Downes described
the university's response to what he called "veiled and indirect"
threats in the communications as a "Heckler's Veto," which is not
permitted under the First Amendment.
After approximately 15 minutes of citing previous federal court cases
that protected free speech in spite of threats of violence, Downes
ordered the university to allow Ayers to speak on campus on April 28
and to provide protection. "To be a free people, we must be able to
express our rights," he said. "To be a prudent people, we must
protect the rights of others."
UW should learn from Ayers episode
May 7, 2010
The University of Wyoming doesn't need a screening process for
everyone who speaks on campus. Its officials just need to improve
their communications with the rest of the campus, and firmly
articulate that UW is a place where students have the right to hear
In the wake of the controversial UW visit last month by radical
turned academic William Ayers, who was invited by the university's
Social Justice Research Center, disinvited and finally allowed to
speak on campus by the order of a federal court judge, UW's Board of
Trustees needs to address the issue.
The board is meeting today and is scheduled to talk about academic
freedom and free speech at its July session. Those discussions should
be in the open, and the outcome needs to be communicated clearly to
the public and the UW community.
UW President Tom Buchanan and the board should candidly discuss how
the Ayers situation happened and learn from those mistakes so they
are not repeated. Ayers won't be the last controversial speaker on
campus. A conservative student group is raising money to bring
right-wing political pundit Ann Coulter to UW in the fall.
This week just the possibility Coulter will visit Laramie was enough
to stir up activity by demonstrators and counter-demonstrators who
both launched Facebook pages. She should be welcomed on campus.
We hope UW's administration would reject any attempt to make who is
invited to speak any type of public referendum. No campus
constituency should be allowed to veto a speaker just because it has
But it makes sense that UW's president and/or his staff is kept in
the loop about proposed speakers. Ayers' visit was put on the
calendar last summer, but apparently no one raised any objection
until a few weeks before his speech. Ayers' controversial past as
founder of the Weather Underground and widespread conservative
criticism of his association with Barack Obama during the 2008
presidential race should have raised red flags at Old Main. That many
people in this red state would be outraged shouldn't have caught
anyone by surprise.
It's a difficult situation to be in, but a university's president
should be the one who ultimately decides -- for the overall good of
the institution -- whether an invitation should be extended to
particularly controversial speakers. That doesn't mean he should cave
in at the suggestion of protests or angry donors -- far from it. If a
faculty, student or employee group wants to hear a certain speaker,
unless there is imminent danger due to that person's appearance on
campus, the president's responsibility is to allow it to proceed.
As the American Association of University Presidents stated in 2007,
"The freedom to hear is an essential condition of a university
community and an inseparable part of academic freedom."
It is vital for UW to emphatically state that it will stand up for
academic freedom and that once an invitation to speak is extended, it
won't be withdrawn. UW's president and the board must make it clear
that they will not back down under pressure, whatever the source, and
that inviting someone to speak on campus does not constitute an
endorsement of that person's views.
Now is the time for UW to reaffirm its commitment to academic freedom
and its intention to preserve the university's unique role as a place
for ideas to flourish and be exchanged.
University of Wyoming reflects on handling of Ayers speech
By BOB MOEN
May 1, 2010
CHEYENNE -- The University of Wyoming's handling of former 1960s
radical William Ayers' campus appearance has sparked discussion and
concern among faculty and administrators about free speech and
academic freedom at the college -- and how to address similar
situations in the future.
"I think clearly people are concerned about the image of the
University of Wyoming and what that represents," engineering
professor Jay A. Puckett, who ended his chairmanship of the UW
Faculty Senate this week, said Friday.
UW invited Ayers to speak on campus in early April but then canceled
him after receiving vocal protest from people concerned about his
anti-war past. It then tried to prevent a second speech by Ayers on
campus, but a federal judge forced the school to host him on Wednesday.
In the 1960s, Ayers co-founded the Weather Underground, an anti-war
group that claimed responsibility for a series of nonfatal bombings,
including explosions at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol. He's now a
professor with the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Ayers' past became a campaign issue during the 2008 presidential race
because he had served with President Barack Obama on the board of a
Chicago charity. Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah
Palin accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists."
While stressing that it's difficult to represent the opinions of UW's
diverse faculty, Puckett said the university's handling of Ayers has
raised concerns among faculty about free speech, academic freedom and
UW providing a neutral forum for debating topics.
At least one member of the UW board of trustees is proposing the
board discuss and develop better ways to handle free speech issues
and controversial speakers.
"We need to embrace this moment as a teaching moment, and that's what
a university is all about, and go forward," UW trustee Ann Rochelle
said. "Universities have these problems, and they need to keep
addressing these issues."
At the same time, campus free speech is not a clean-cut issue, she said.
"Free speech is messy, and you have to discuss it," Rochelle said.
"But if you say the answer is a speaker code, no. If you say
everybody comes on campus, that's wrong too."
Rochelle said trustees are scheduled to discuss the free speech
situation at their July meeting.
Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni,
said her organization advises that college administrative boards
develop policies that expose students to speakers with different
perspectives so students can make up their own minds on issues. The
independent organization based in Washington, D.C., promotes higher
education excellence and academic freedom.
"If you have someone that's coming to talk about health care and has
a particular perspective then you find an alternative perspective," Neal said.
"As things stand, speakers are invited willy-nilly and the stage is
set for controversy," she said.