Federal District Judge William Downes, a former Marine Corps captain and Vietnam vet, yesterday ordered William Ayers to be allowed to speak at the University of Wyoming. Ayers, former Weatherman and now Professor of Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, had been barred by the University from appearing on campus, first on account of his controversial status and then on the basis of threats and security concerns.
Judge Downes registered his contempt for the Weather Underground and its activities, which we fully share, but we also commend his decision. To the extent that there were threats against Professor Ayers, and the record is far from convincing, the heckler’s veto, to say nothing of threatened violence, can’t be allowed to shut down campus debate. The past victims of disruption and threats have typically, and unsurprisingly, been “conservatives” such as Jeane Kirkpatrick at Berkeley, Ward Connerly at Columbia, and most recently, retired Congressman Tom Tancredo. But that said, it has long been painfully apparent that we need more debate rather than less at our universities and, of course, the First Amendment applies to all.
Ayers was originally invited to the University by the Social Justice Research Center, located within its College of Education. We note that one of the Center’s purposes is “intellectual exchange rooted in critical analysis,” “critical analysis” of a very particular sort, being a quality Ayers certainly exemplifies. The provenance of his invitation suggests a far better approach to overseeing campus discourse than the one the University chose. If Wyoming also had a campus program for the study of “American Ideals and Institutions” as does Princeton, or a Center for the Study of Western Civilization, as does the nearby University of Colorado, it might have been able to bring to its campus a series of speakers who could put Ayers’ remarks in some interesting perspective. We recommend this possibility to the consideration of the University’s administration and its fiduciaries.