Congratulations to Millersville University (MU) for promising to stand strong against protesters who want MU to disinvite controversial professor William Ayers from a lecture scheduled for March 19. Ayers became controversial during the 2008 presidential election and, since then, has been disinvited from University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) and Georgia Southern University (GSU) under very questionable circumstances. At both schools, vehement calls to disinvite Ayers were followed by the claim that the disinvitation was merely for security purposes. At UNL, it was reported that a series of increasingly violent and credible threats made it impossible to guarantee security on campus, and GSU simply declared that it didn’t feel like dealing with the security issues posed by potential protests—$13,000 in costs and the closing of several parking lots.
But something different and good is happening at Millersville. Robyn Meadows features the story in yesterday’s Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, PA). Meadows reports a public statement by Millersville University President Francine McNairy: “While I personally reject any form of violence, and strongly disagree with Dr. Ayers’ past actions and statements, I adamantly support the right of the committee to invite Professor Ayers…. [At Millersville,] inquiry is encouraged, ideas are expressed openly, and the dignity and rights of all individuals are respected and protected. It is within that context that this lecture will occur.”
The backlash against Ayers’ visit is itself a healthy exercise of American liberty. Protesters are, of course, free to demand the disinvitation of Ayers or to advocate for or against him and what he stands for. But to disinvite him would be a travesty of justice in violation of the best principles of freedom of speech. As Millersville spokeswoman Janet Kacskos wrote to Meadows, to cave into the pressure against Ayers “would be to undermine the educational princip[le]s and values that our University is based on — a liberal arts University where all opinions and ideas can be examined, questioned and discussed.” Even better, Kacskos also has frequently pointed out the support for freedom of speech that has come in from those who are against the disinvitation. One writer “believes in free press and free speech, and he is worried that we’ll be intimidated into silence.” Another, a Millersville graduate, honored the school as “a marketplace for all ideas and people of all stripes, a place where free speech is encouraged.”
And it gets even better. According to Meadows, Jane Bray, Dean of the School of Education at MU, made clear that “The school’s future teachers are fully capable of determining on their own if Ayers ‘will have a worthwhile message’ and [the future teachers] will ‘be strongly encouraged to make their own determinations regarding his message.'” This statement of the strength of students’ ability to be critical listeners is all too often absent from administrations that prefer speech codes that infantilize and coddle students as though they are too weak to handle points of view they find offensive.