Last Friday, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst cancelled a scheduled appearance by former radical leader Ray Luc Levasseur. The cancellation was announced following pressure from Governor Deval Patrick, the National Association of Police, and the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. Levasseur had been invited to participate in a "Colloquium for Social Change" sponsored by the school’s Special Collections and University Archives division. According to a university spokesman, Levasseur was to have taken part in a discussion of responses to the social unrest of the 1960s and 70s.
Levasseur is the former leader of the United Freedom Front, a militant radical group responsible for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper, the attempted murder of two Massachusetts state troopers, and approximately 20 domestic bombings in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Levasseur, who currently resides at a halfway house in Maine, was released from federal prison in 2004 after serving 18 years of a 45-year conviction on conspiracy and bombing charges.
In a statement, Robert Cox, head of UMass-Amherst’s Special Collections and University Archives, said that while the forum was developed to provide "an opportunity to focus on terrorism, one of the most difficult social issues confronting the country," the "strong reaction generated by this event" meant that the Levasseur’s appearance could "no longer achieve the kind of meaningful exchange intended."
The cancellation of Levasseur’s speech is troubling and is the latest instance of a growing trend of schools cancelling appearances by controversial speakers under pressure by elected officials and outside organizations.
In October 2008, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln drew headlines after cancelling a planned speech by William Ayers, former Weather Underground member and current professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, following criticism by Nebraska’s governor and attorney general. FIRE criticized the move as raising "questions about UNL’s commitment to freedom of expression" and wrote UNL’s president to express our concern. Similarly, Boston College cancelled a speech by Ayers in March of this year under pressure from outside organizations, also prompting a letter from FIRE.
Whatever one’s opinion of Levasseur or Ayers, our nation’s public universities must be open for speech of all kinds—however controversial and however offensive to some, most, or even all—if they are to serve the classical purpose of universities. This does not mean that people are wrong to be upset about speakers like Levasseur, or even that they are wrong to protest his speech. It does mean, however, that if we as a nation value having a free society, we must be willing to allow people to speak despite the fact that what they have to say has the potential to lead to anger or hurt feelings.
Once this principle is abandoned for people like Levasseur or Ayers, it ceases to be much of a principle at all. After all, if anger or hurt feelings are legitimate reasons to silence a speaker, it is easy to justify incidents like the silencing of conservative columnist Don Feder, whose March 2009 appearance at UMass-Amherst was disrupted by rowdy students intent on preventing him from speaking, despite the fact that as far as we know, Feder has never been accused of actually hurting anyone.
As the Supreme Court has aptly stated, "[t]he college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’" Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) (internal citation omitted). For this marketplace of ideas to function, it must remain open to controversial speakers like Levasseur, Ayers, and Feder, just as surely as it must remain open to those who oppose them. Censorship is anathema to the marketplace of ideas.
Reacting to the disruption of Feder’s speech at UMass-Amherst in March, my colleague Robert Shibley wrote the following in an op-ed for The Boston Globe:
At the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, we tell students that if they have gone through four years of college without ever being offended or having their beliefs challenged, they should ask for their money back. John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 treatise "On Liberty," observed that nobody is infallible, and that an opinion we detest might be right, or, even if wrong, might "contain a portion of truth" that we would otherwise have missed. Might Feder’s opinions have contained that "portion of truth?" UMass students may never know.
Mill’s observation applies to ex-militants like Levasseur and Ayers just as it did to the non-militant Feder. Have UMass students now missed out on yet another "portion of truth?" Thanks to this latest capitulation to political pressure, only one thing is sure: we’ll never know.