Citizens of Wyoming Docked $50,000 for UW’s Disregard of the First Amendment

By May 21, 2010

The drama surrounding the recent appearance of Professor William Ayers at the University of Wyoming has come to an end, it seems, and an expensive end at that. Ayers and UW student Meg Lanker agreed to drop their lawsuit against the university after UW agreed to pay $50,000 in legal fees for the plaintiffs, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

Like a loaded gun in a Chekhov drama whose presence guarantees it will be discharged before the play’s end, this outcome was foreseeable. Unlike the world of Uncle Vanya or The Seagull, however, it was eminently avoidable. FIRE had publicly warned the University of Wyoming and many others of the needless risks a university takes when it fights the First Amendment in court. By attempting to banish Ayers from its campus, UW put itself quite firmly on the wrong side of free speech.

Here’s how I previously described the series of events leading to Ayers and Lanker filing suit against UW:

Ayers had originally been scheduled to appear at UW on April 5 and 6, hosted by UW’s Social Justice Research Center (SJRC). Though the controversy surrounding his appearance only swelled in the final days prior to his scheduled visit, the appearance had been planned at least as far back as fall 2009. As people became aware of Ayers’ pending visit, UW was bombarded with angry letters, phone calls, and e-mails from community members, local politicians, and alumni threatening to withhold their donations if Ayers was allowed to speak at UW. SJRC director Francisco Rios ultimately decided to cancel the appearance.

Following the cancellation, another coalition of UW students spearheaded by UW student Meg Lanker and including the UW student group Secular Student Alliance extended an invitation to Ayers, who agreed to come speak at UW on April 28. After the Secular Student Alliance withdrew its invitation, however, Lanker was unable to reserve on-campus space for Ayers’ speech. Ayers is currently set to deliver his lecture off-campus on April 28.

After it became clear that Lanker would not be able to host Ayers anywhere on the UW campus, Ayers and Lanker filed a lawsuit against the university and its President, Tom Buchanan, as well as a motion for preliminary injunction so that Ayers may speak on the UW campus on April 28, as originally planned.

This preliminary injunction, as Torch readers well know, was granted by Judge William Downes in a stinging rebuke:

There was, of course, no evidence received in this hearing on the detailed matters of Mr. Ayers’ past, but this Court is of an age to remember the group of which he was a founding member. When the Weather Underground was bombing the Capitol of the United States in 1971, I served in the uniform of my country. Like many of my fellow veterans of that era, even to this day, when I hear the name of that organization, I can scarcely swallow the bile of my contempt for it.

The fact remains Mr. Ayers is a citizen of the United States who wishes to speak. He need not offer any more justification than that. The controversy surrounding the past life of Professor Ayers and the widely held public perception of his past conduct cannot serve as a justification to defrock him of the guarantees of the First Amendment.

Ayers spoke to roughly 1,100 people at UW on April 28, and though the lawsuit was still outstanding at that point, the battle had been won.

UW’s fight against the Bill of Rights ended up costing $50,000, while simply doing its constitutional duty would have cost a grand total of zero dollars, not counting the extra security due to potentially violent protesters that UW was so worried about. Those people never showed up, or at least not with violence. (Extra security costs are the responsibility of the state or the university, not the hosts of a controversial event.)

Among the hundreds of angry calls and e-mails the university received were messages from citizens chanting, "Not with my tax money!" at the thought of the former radical being given a forum at the state’s flagship university. UW professor Donal O’Toole made clear in an April 30 letter in the Casper Star-Tribune that the hosts raised from private donations every cent of the $3,434.73 charged for the event. Indeed, "Not with my tax money!" could have been one way to accurately sum up the evening.

Snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, however, UW kept fighting the lawsuit, and for that cost the taxpayer was on the hook, courtesy of the UW administration’s intransigent disregard of the First Amendment. In a state of about 500,000 people, that comes to a little less than ten cents a head. You could look at $50,000 as the annual salary of a reasonably paid UW employee, or you could think about it this way: Each and every Wyoming resident has been forced by UW President Tom Buchanan to cough up a dime. 
If Buchanan showed up at your door asking for a dime so he could violate the Constitution for political reasons, would you give it to him even if you agreed with him? Actually, that’s not quite the right question. UW didn’t ask for your dime to help them violate the Bill of Rights. It just flat out took it.

Just about the only way this could be more embarrassing for the university is if it had been smiling for the cameras as it presented the plaintiffs with one of those enormous checks you see at PGA Tour events, black-tie charity galas, and the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. That visible sign of what really happened might actually prove useful; it would be an image taxpayers wouldn’t soon forget, especially when the next free speech controversy lands on their doorstep. In any case, UW’s fight against the First Amendment has left the state $50,000 poorer, and that should be all the reminder the people need.

Schools: University of Wyoming