‘Heckler’s Veto’ Crumbling in Wyoming Court after Ayers Cancellation

April 27, 2010

Free speech is winning points against violent agitators in the wake of the University of Wyoming’s choice to ban from speaking on campus controversial education professor William Ayers, whose former organization Weather Underground once made a point of being violent agitators.

As Peter described last Thursday, students and faculty at the University of Wyoming (UW) held a demonstration in support of free speech on campus, and Ayers, along with student Meg Lanker, has sued the university following two failed attempts to bring him to the campus. Peter’s post has most of the details, including some choice quotations from the lawsuit.

Today, Pete Nickeas and Chad Baldwin report for the Casper Star-Tribune that the university’s case for banning Ayers from campus has been faring badly in court. At yesterday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge William Downes pointed out that threats of violence are not enough to prevent someone from speaking on campus. Their whole report is worth reading. Here are the highlights:

  • UW President Tom Buchanan publicly confirmed that he chose to ban Ayers.
  • Buchanan said he did not actually ban Ayers from the whole campus, but Judge Downes pointed out that an e-mail from UW’s general counsel to Lanker did completely ban Ayers.
  • According to Buchanan, a "‘torrent’ of ‘angry, hateful and venomous’ e-mails and phone calls," and "implied and direct threats leveled in calls and e-mails," against Ayers’ various planned appearances were a major factor in cancelling the upcoming appearance of Ayers.
  • Under questioning from plaintiffs’ attorney David Lane, Buchanan "also disclosed that a number of UW supporters had threatened to cease contributing money to the university."
  • Buchanan further disclosed that "three members of the UW board of trustees — Betty Fear, Brad Mead and Taylor Haynes — had expressed their displeasure about the prospect of Ayers speaking on campus," although others had spoken in support of his speaking on campus.
  • Buchanan acknowledged that "[t]he primary objection of those against Ayers’ appearance was his background as a militant anti-war activist in the 1960s and ’70s [but] said those concerns were not a factor in his decision."

Buchanan seems to be singing a different tune in court than he did beforehand. On March 30, after the first events were cancelled, UW put out a press release explaining that UW has been highly motivated by the desire to show "respect" for critics of Ayers, as well as the desire to keep Ayers off of campus as a matter of UW’s "reputation":

Re-evaluation of this event was unavoidable. One way or the other, this event needed to be revisited …

Academic freedom is a core principle of any institution of higher education. But with that freedom comes an obligation to exercise free thought and free speech in concert with mutual respect and acknowledgment of broader resource and security impacts on the campus. The exercise of freedom requires a commensurate dose of responsibility.

Observers in and outside of the university would be incorrect to conclude that UW simply caved in to external pressure. Rather, I commended the director of the center for a willingness to be sensitive to the outpouring of criticism, evaluate the arguments, and reconsider the invitation.

The University of Wyoming is one of the few institutions remaining in today’s environment that garners the confidence of the public. The visit by Professor Ayers would have adversely impacted that reputation. [Emphases added.]

It is extremely difficult to see how UW could be acting in good faith here. Making matters worse for UW’s case, according to Nickeas and Baldwin:

Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder told the court that the university never reported threats of violence to his police department despite years of cooperation and intelligence sharing between the agencies. Stalder testified under subpoena after the Laramie city attorney unsuccessfully tried to prevent Stalder from talking.

As FIRE and about two dozen national and international organizations wrote in a statement named "Free Expression at Risk" last November, "The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it." This principle holds whether the violent agitators are people who don’t want others to hear from Bill Ayers or people who don’t want others to see images of Mohammed.

Further news out of the court is expected late this afternoon. FIRE will keep you posted.

Schools:  University of Wyoming