The University of Wyoming must allow 1960s radical William Ayers to speak on the school's campus in Laramie, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, saying threats of violence don't trump free speech rights.
The university had cited safety concerns in not allowing Ayers to speak at a campus event Wednesday. But U.S. District Judge William Downes said Tuesday that the threats of violence the university said it received were too vague to warrant denying Ayers' right to speak on campus.
Ayers, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, co-founded an anti-war group during the Vietnam War era that claimed responsibility for nonfatal bombings that in the 1960s protested U.S. foreign policies. He now plans to speak at UW on Wednesday about free speech at the invitation of student Meg Lanker.
Lanker and Ayers filed the lawsuit against the school earlier this month saying their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly were violated.
Lanker said after the decision Tuesday that free speech is "alive" at UW. During Monday's hearing, an attorney for Ayers and Lanker said security concerns were overblown and the university was more worried about losing donations.
The university issued a statement saying it will comply with the court's order and will provide appropriate security.
"The heart of the issue was whether as president of the university, I can cancel a speaking engagement if I believe there are overriding safety concerns for the university community," UW President Tom Buchanan said in a prepared statement.
Bryan Profaizer, president of a conservative student group at the university, said he expected some effort to organize a protest of Ayers.
"To what magnitude, I don't know at this point," Profaizer said.
Ayers was a co-founder of Weather Underground, a radical anti-war group that claimed to be responsible for a series of bombings, including nonfatal explosions at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol. He was a fugitive for years before surrendering in 1980. Charges against him were later dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct.
In his ruling, Downes noted that he served as a Marine in Vietnam and remembered the Weather Underground.
"I can scarcely swallow the bile of my contempt" for the Weather Underground, the judge said.
Nevertheless, Downes said a free society must both exercise and guarantee First Amendment rights. He cited a number of past cases that upheld the right of free speech and assembly despite the threat of violence, including the bloody 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala.
Ayers originally was invited to speak at the university in Laramie on April 5 by the privately endowed UW Social Justice Research Center. But the center's director canceled the event after the invitation drew hundreds of protests.
Lanker then extended an invitation to Ayers to speak at the school, but the university refused to rent out a sports complex for the event. Lanker and Ayers filed a lawsuit against the school, saying it violated their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.
President Barack Obama served with Ayers on the board of a Chicago charity before becoming president. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, made the connection an issue, accusing Obama of "palling around with terrorists."
Obama has condemned Ayers' radical activities, and there's no evidence they were ever close friends or that Ayers advised Obama on policy.
Other universities have canceled Ayers speeches recently, including the University of Nebraska and Boston College. He's also been confronted by protesters at other appearances. However, Ayers testified Monday the Wyoming case is the first time he has filed a lawsuit against a college for denying him the right to speak.
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