I’m speaking Thursday and Friday at Penn State University, and Saturday at Penn in Philadelphia. As usual a small but noisy group is stirring up opposition, led by an ill-informed state senator. I was moved to dig up a couple of excerpts from PUBLIC ENEMY:
Cancellations and abandonment continued apace and the tempest leapt completely out of the teapot: officials at the University of Wyoming, citing “security threats” and “controversy,” canceled two talks I’d been asked to give there, one a public lecture entitled “Trudge Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action,” and the other, a talk to faculty and graduate students called “Teaching and Research in the Public Interest: Solidarity and Identity.” One week before I was to travel to Laramie, I was told I had been “disinvited.”
A campaign to rescind the invitation had been initiated on right-wing blogs months earlier, accelerating quickly to a wider space where a demonizing storyline dominated all discussion and a wave of hateful messages and death threats hit the University, joined soon enough by a few political leaders and wealthy donors instructing officials in ominous tones to cancel my visit to the campus, or else. This was becoming drearily familiar to me.
A particularly despicable note in that campaign was written by Frank Smith who lived in Cheyenne and was active in the Wyoming Patriot Alliance: “Maybe someone could take him out and show him the Matthew Sheppard (sic) Commerative (sic) Fence and he could bless it or something.” He was referring to Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was tortured and murdered in 1998, left to die tied to a storm fence outside Laramie.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Micheli released a letter he’d sent to the trustees asking them to rescind the invitation, and Matt Mead, another gubernatorial candidate, said that while he was a self-described “fervent believer in free speech and the free exchange of ideas,” that allowing me to speak would be “reprehensible.” He concluded that I should have “no place lecturing our students.”
I told the folks who had invited me how sorry I was that all of this was happening to them, but that I thought it would surely pass. Certainly no matter what a couple of thugs threatened to do, I said, I thought not much would happen, and that Wyoming law enforcement could get me to the podium in any case, and that I would handle myself from there as I always do. I thought we should stand together and refuse to accede to these kinds of pressures to demonize and mostly to suppress students’ right to freely engage in open dialogue. After all a public university is not the personal fiefdom or the political clubhouse of the governor, and donors can’t be permitted to call the shots when it comes to the content or conduct of academic matters. We should not allow ourselves to collapse in fear if a howling mob gathers at the gates with flaming torches in hand, in fact, that was when standing up and pushing back became absolutely necessary. I wouldn’t force myself on the university, of course, but I felt that canceling would be terribly unfair to the faculty and students who had invited me, and would send a big message that bullying works. It would be the equivalent of a book-burning, and would be one more step down the slippery slope of giving up on the precious ideal of a free university in a free society.
No good. The university posted an announcement of the cancellation of my visit with a long and rambling comment from President Tom Buchanan that begins with the obligatory assertion that academic freedom is a core principle of the university, but quickly adds that “freedom requires a commensurate dose of responsibility.” We are charged to enact free speech and thought, he wrote, “in concert with mutual respect.” The heckler’s veto had worked perfectly.
I suggested that I show up on campus—no announcement, no security, no fanfare—and stand respectfully in front of the student union with a big sign saying, “Let’s Talk.” I would engage anyone who happened to walk by and chat about anything that came up.
Those who thought that the university “caved in to external pressure,” President Buchanan went on, would be “incorrect:” “this episode illustrated an opportunity to hear and critically evaluate a variety of ideas thoughtfully, through open, reasoned, and civil debate, it also demonstrates that we must be mindful of the real consequences our actions and decisions have on others.” That twisty sentence qualified him to write for the Nation, for while it was impossible to know definitively what he was calling the “episode” that would provide the opportunity to critically evaluate matters—it might have been the public lecture itself or the cancellation of the lecture, it might have been the barbarians at the gates threatening to burn the place down or the foundations or wealthy alumni warning that funds were in the balance—it had an unmistakable Orwellian ring: we cancelled that lecture as an expression of our support for lectures! And it was eerily similar to the warrior classics: we destroyed that village in order to save it! Work will make you free! War is peace!
One of the truly weird qualities of the Buchanan statement was the hole in its center, the deafening silence concerning why the campaign against me was organized in the first place. I’d been an educator and professor for decades and the hard Right had accelerated the lunacy against thousands of folks—activists and artists, commentators and humorists, academics and theorists—who were, like me, open and outspoken radicals. Wherever possible they’d mounted campaigns exactly like the one in Wyoming. Often university officials stood up on principle and resisted the organized gangs; sometimes they compromised, restricting access to talks and surrounding me with unwanted and unnecessary police protection; and sometimes, as in Nebraska and Wyoming, the university bowed deeply, and then turned and ran.
Of course I hadn’t been invited to speak about the 60s or any of this, and it’s unlikely any of it would have come up without the active campaigning and noisy thunder from the tiny crowd of right-wing zealots in the midst of a presidential election. I would have focused my talk in any case on the unique characteristics of education in a democracy, an enterprise that rests on the twin pillars of enlightenment and liberation, knowledge and human freedom. We should all want to wake up and pay attention, to know more, I would have argued, to see more, to experience more in order to do more—to be more competent and powerful and capable in our projects and our pursuits, to be more astute and aware and wide-awake, more fully engaged in the world that we inherit, the world we are simultaneously destined to change.
To deny students the right to question the circumstances of their lives and to wonder how they might be otherwise, or to deny them the freedom to read widely and to speak to the broadest range of people, as Buchanan was doing, was to deny democracy itself.
I was contacted by Meg Lanker, an undergraduate who was just back from serving in the military and had been active in opposing the cancellation of my talk in Wyoming. She was a fighter on every level. “I’m going to sue the university in federal court,” she told me during our first conversation. “And I’m claiming that it’s my free speech that’s been violated—I have the right to speak to anyone I want to, and right now I want to speak to you.” She was young and unafraid, smart and sassy, her dreams being rapidly made and used—no fear, no regret. I liked her immediately.
Meg Lanker’s approach struck me as quite brilliant—students (and not I) were indeed the injured party. “Inviting you wasn’t necessarily an endorsement; I check books out of the library all the time that aren’t pre-approved. Let’s talk, and who knows, maybe we’ll have a big argument. But we have a right to have you here, and they can’t stop us.”
She contacted David Lane, a marvelous people’s lawyer and legal street fighter from Denver, and he filed an injunction against the university—suddenly there we were in court before a conservative federal judge. President Buchanan took the stand to complain about security and, when the judge nudged him to remember the first amendment said, “But doesn’t security trump free speech?” The judge patiently explained that if that were true there would never have been any dissent—including the Civil Rights Movement—in our history. He ruled that the university must accommodate my talk taking whatever security precautions it felt were prudent.
My family worried about me traveling alone across Wyoming and so Chesa, studying for law school finals, volunteered and became the designated hitter.He flew in to meet me at the Denver airport where we rented a car and drove together to Laramie. I wasn’t sure he added much muscle, but we had a lovely drive together and lunch at a dive outside of town with the lawyers and the dissident students, toured the campus with Meg, sat on benches drinking coffee in the beautiful Dick and Lynn Cheney Plaza, and knocked on President Buchanan’s door, but he’d gone home early, so I left him a copy of the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That night close to 1100 people braved a blizzard and showed up for my talk—I wanted to think that they all came to hear what I had to say about justice, democracy, and education, but I was realistic enough to know that I’d have likely had an audience of 50 students without all the drama, but there you are.
I’d been invited to give a named lecture on urban education at Millersville University in Pennsylvania and when I got a call from a dean there I was sure we were about to have the same old well-worn conversation regarding opposition, security, “hope you agree,” “so so sorry,” blah blah blah. But she surprised me: “We are all outraged by the manufactured turmoil that’s engulfed us in the wake of the announcement of your up-coming lecture,” she began. She was calling to arrange a conference-call between me and half dozen top officials to discuss how to respond to the craziness, and even how to “make the controversy a teachable moment.” Millersville buoyed my spirits.
The conversation a few days later was the most thoughtful and principled I’d known throughout all the howling frenzy. The administration was determined to host me in a safe and orderly environment and hold all scheduled events—informal conversations with small groups of students and alums, a planned semi-formal dinner to honor the funder, and the campus-wide lecture—and determined as well to defend academic freedom and give their students and the public a lesson in intellectual courage. The officials assured me that defending the lecture was not a burden to them, but rather it was their duty and their honor. “It’s not about you personally,” one said. “It’s about the mission and the meaning of the university.” They then reviewed a letter written to the campus community by the university president, Francine G. McNairy, an African-American woman, outlining the purpose of the lecture and the reason it would not be cancelled. She wrote in part:
A long-accepted value in higher education is that free inquiry is indispensable to the advancement of knowledge. History is replete with examples of ideas that are now precepts of human knowledge that were initially suppressed because their authors were considered heretics or radicals. The focus of the faculty committee, which more than a year ago invited Dr. Ayers to speak, was to advance the dialogue about effective ideas and successful approaches for closing the educational achievement gap between urban students and their non-urban counterparts. This selection was made devoid of political litmus tests for authors. From an objective standpoint, what should matter are which ideas and approaches work and not who develops them. Free inquiry and free speech are critical elements of academic freedom, which thoughtful Americans from our founding fathers to U.S. presidents and Supreme Court justices, more than 200 years later, have judged essential to preparing students to be productive citizens. University administrators have the obligation to support academic freedom in the academy just as public officials are obliged to support free speech in a democratic society. The protection of academic freedom is necessary to afford faculty and students the right to consider and weigh the value of ideas from all sources…
The head of campus police reviewed some of the threats they’d received, many directed at me, of course, and plenty aimed personally and with vile specificity at President McNairy, and outlined a complicated plan—SWAT team, bomb-sniffing dogs, state and local police—that seemed overly elaborate to me, but I figured that they knew better than I, and what the hell.