Bill Ayers is no stranger to disinvitation attempts, and his recent invitation to speak at Pennsylvania State University predictably provoked opposition.
Ayers is scheduled to speak at campus events on March 19 and 20, hosted by student groups using the funds allocated to them from student activity fees. Last Friday, a group of 11 students at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, led by Shohin Vance, wrote to administrators and requested that they cancel Ayers’s speaking engagements, arguing that “the law school does not benefit from giving an admitted domestic terrorist, who has shown no remorse for his actions such a platform.”
The students’ request was echoed by Pennsylvania State Senator Joe Scarnati, who also wrote to Penn State on Friday, demanding that the invitation to Ayers be revoked. Scarnati wrote that he saw “no value” in allowing Ayers to speak at Penn State “in light of his violent past.” He also asked that Penn State send his office information about the cost of the event, including speaker fees and travel costs, a chilling request from a public official in Scarnati’s position.
The Supreme Court has disapproved of such legislative intrusion into campus expression, as FIRE has (unfortunately) had many occasions to point out. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), Paul Sweezy, an openly Marxist guest lecturer at the University of New Hampshire was subpoenaed by New Hampshire’s Attorney General to discuss Sweezy’s relationship with the Communist Party. Holding that the investigation into “subversives” violated Sweezy’s constitutional rights, the Supreme Court wrote:
To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made.
For society's good—if understanding be an essential need of society—inquiries into these problems, speculations about them, stimulation in others of reflection upon them, must be left as unfettered as possible. Political power must abstain from intrusion into this activity of freedom, pursued in the interest of wise government and the people's well-being, except for reasons that are exigent and obviously compelling.
Fortunately for its students, Penn State is well aware of the perils of demanding ideological purity from speakers invited to campus. Wyatt DuBois, communication director of Penn State’s law school, recognized that any invited speaker (or any interesting one, anyway) is going to provoke disagreement—and that’s precisely what the university setting is for:
“Anytime you bring in someone with a viewpoint, you are going to have someone disagree with that viewpoint,” DuBois said. “We’re trying to foster a diverse marketplace of ideas.”
University spokeswoman Lisa Powers also spoke up in defense of Penn State students’ right to invite speakers of their choosing to campus, without interference motivated by public pressure:
"They are free to sponsor programs and speakers, however controversial, without censorship by the university," said Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers. "Of course, the presence of any speaker cannot be taken as an endorsement by the university of his/her views."
Penn State is exactly right to point out that it should seek to create environments that inspire debate. Universities should be criticized when they cancel controversial events, not when they allow them. We know of some other universities that should be taking notes.