For a few weeks now, FIRE has been monitoring the situation at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) following the cancellation of a speech by William Ayers, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a founding member of the Weather Underground, a group responsible for the bombings of several public buildings—including the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol—during the 1960s and 70s.
Ayers’ speech was abruptly cancelled by UNL on "safety" grounds after the publicity generated by his relationship with now President-elect Barack Obama drew attention to his activist history. Nebraska’s governor and attorney general, as well as the chair of the University of Nebraska’s Board of Regents, condemned the university’s invitation, in addition to numerous university alumni and donors. Following the cancellation of Ayers’ speech, FIRE wrote a letter to UNL President James B. Milliken expressing our concern over the dangers of allowing a "heckler’s veto" to determine speech on campus, and detailing the threat that capitulating to threats of violence poses to academic freedom and freedom of expression.
Today FIRE received a letter via facsimile from President Milliken, saying little other than that the "decision was made appropriately at the campus level." Interestingly, Milliken also enclosed an editorial he authored shortly after the cancellation, in which he seems to demonstrate an understanding of the virtues of academic freedom. As he says in the editorial: "[f]ree expression is a foundation of our democracy itself, which depends on more speech, not less, to inform thoughtful decisions. And this principle is tested most strenuously when the speech is most objectionable."
FIRE certainly lauds such an endorsement, but it begs the question of why Ayers’ speech was cancelled in the first place, considering that universities across America are regularly made safe enough for visits by presidents and presidential candidates. Is it really possible that an acceptable level of safety was impossible to establish for a far more minor figure like William Ayers?
Milliken’s letter promises that UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman will address FIRE’s concerns in a separate letter. Hopefully his response will do more to illuminate the university’s troubling actions.