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May 04, 2010 3:18 am

UW officials bullied into making foolish decisions

Written by Tribune Staff

Last week William Ayers — the controversial figure best known for his association with the Vietnam-era anti-war group the Weather Underground — spoke at the University of Wyoming.

Ayers' speech — which, ironically, focused on education issues — happened only after a federal judge forced the university to allow him to speak on campus. The event was the culmination of a brief legal battle which shined a bright spotlight on the university's poor choice to kowtow to wealthy donors — at the expense of free speech.

When Ayers' scheduled appearance was first announced in late March, it ignited a firestorm of protest.

Despite the fact that the former 1960s radical was slated to speak about education, angry e-mails and phone calls from parents, alumni and donors prompted the UW Social Justice Research Center to withdraw its invitation. When a student re-extended the invitation to Ayers, UW officials refused to allow him to speak on campus, citing security concerns.

Security apparently wasn't the primary concern. At the federal court hearing, UW President Tom Buchanan testified that he received objections to Ayers' appearance from three members of the UW board of trustees ... as well as from several university donors, notably John Martin, a wealthy Casper oil man.

Ayers addressed the issue at the beginning of his UW speech: “A donor who gives to the University of Wyoming — just as a donor who gives to the University of Illinois or the University of Chicago or Harvard or Yale or the University of California — gives to the idea of the university. That donor doesn't get to say ‘By the way, you have to hire this professor and this is the book the professor has to teach out of.' What kind of university would that be?”

Wyoming Chief U.S. District Judge William Downes, who made the ruling in the case, ultimately agreed and determined that the objections and perceived threats amounted to a “heckler's veto” of free speech.

“If the First Amendment can't find sanctuary on a college campus, where can it take refuge?” Judge Downes asked.

Indeed. In refusing to allow Ayers' speech, UW violated the fundamental goals of an institution of higher learning — to provide a marketplace of free speech and ideas and to foster debate and the development of critical thinking.

Judge Downes, a former Marine, said at the hearing, “I can scarcely swallow the bile of my contempt” for the Weather Underground. Nonetheless, he determined that past actions, no matter how reprehensible, don't negate the right to free speech.

That's as it should be. Dick Cheney's appearance at UW in 2009 drew a crowd of protesters. If campus conservative groups are successful in bringing political commentator Ann Coulter to UW this fall, she most certainly will be greeted with some protest. It's all part of what you get — and what you should get — in a university experience. Allowing donors, alumni and others to dictate who is and who isn't allowed to speak is wrong, and it dilutes the quality of education UW students receive.

The University of Wyoming's mission statement reads, in part, “ ... we seek to provide academic and co-curricular activities that will ... nurture an environment that values and manifests diversity, free expression, academic freedom, personal integrity, and mutual respect.”

University officials would do well to stand by that mission when making future decisions.