Column: Cancellation Of Ayers' Speech Silences Valuable Debates, Questions

This story was written by Nic Swiercek, Daily Nebraskan

Free expression suffered a setback at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Friday's cancellation of William Ayers' talk at UNL is a blow to one of our university's fundamental purposes: promoting the free exchange of ideas.

Last February, the College of Education and Human Sciences selected Ayers, a former leader of the radical antiwar splinter group Weather Underground and a noted education scholar, to speak at a Nov. 15 graduate research conference.

Since the 1980s, Ayers has become a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, published numerous articles and books on education reform, and served on community non-profit boards including the Annenberg Institute and the Woods Fund.

The College's decision to bring him came before he became a household name during this campaign season. Without recent scrutiny, most Nebraskans wouldn't know who Ayers is - the same fuss wasn't thrown when Ayers spoke at a Nebraska Department of Education conference in 1991.

Word of Ayers' visit spread late last Thursday, and a deluge of opposition came from the likes of Rep. Lee Terry, Sen. Ben Nelson, Gov. Dave Heineman, the NU Board of Regents, Attorney General John Bruning and various Nebraskans. Some parents threatened to remove their children from the university, while private donors, such as the Gilbert M. and Martha H. Hitchcock Foundation, which has donated millions to the University of Nebraska over four decades, threatened to withhold future contributions if Ayers spoke.

University officials on Friday announced that the university's threat assessment group had identified e-mails containing threats of violence and safety concerns, and chose to cancel Ayers' appearance. Although officials claimed the cancellation was not due to political pressure, the recent outpouring of opposition from political leaders, financial contributors and private individuals certainly suggests that Ayers' cancellation was political.

When other controversial speakers have come to campus, however, this familiar backlash is sometimes mute.

John Bolton, whom many view as a chief contributor to George W. Bush's destructive foreign policy, spoke at the E.N. Thompson Forum in 2006. Although many vehemently disagreed with Bolton's politics, the university paid him thousands of dollars, and he received a platform to share his views. Likewise, when Ward Connerly came to UNL, students and faculty who disagreed with his views on equal opportunity initiatives heard him out during his speech and challenged him during the question period.

Of course neither Bolton or Connerly bombed buildings. But they were controversial and sparked intense debate on campus before and long after they spoke. Although I might disagree with Bolton and Connerly, I appreciate that they promoted a fundamental goal of our university: an open and contested exchange of ideas. The same should've occurred with Ayers.

UNL is one of the few places in Nebraska that the free exchange of ideas is supposed to be enshrined and protected. Canceling Ayers' visit represents a missed opportunity to promote open discourse.

Perhaps most troubling is that the opposition to Ayers' visit shows a severe lack of confidence in our students' ability to assess and challenge competing ideas.

Students and faculty could have sponsored on-campus discussions and debates that weighed the value of his scholarship or exposed his problematic history.

My question to those up in arms over Ayers is: Does William Ayers' presence pose such a threat that they fear Nebraskans are incapable of debating and challenging Ayers' politics or scholarship?

Perhaps I have stronger faih than others that Nebraskans are capable of articulating their support for or disagreement with any individuals' politics, philosophy or scholarship regardless of a speaker's political leanings.

I understand why some people argued that no state tax dollars should have gone toward paying for Ayers' visit. But Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences, told the Journal Star on Thursday that no state money would've paid for Ayers' visit and that the small honorarium that would've been paid would've come from private funds ("NU president, regents call Ayers visit 'poor judgment'"). Moreover, the NU Foundation, a private entity, was not contributing to Ayers talk either.

But the issue shouldn't be whether state money would have been spent. Our university should not sponsor only "safe," non-thought-provoking speakers. We need speakers that challenge students and faculty to critically examine and analyze arguments across the entire ideological spectrum.

This is why many, including myself, are disappointed to hear that the university received "about 1,000 negative phone calls, e-mails and blog posts" demanding Ayers' visit be cancelled, "1 percent [of which] made a notable threat" according to Chancellor Perlman.

We should've been more reasonable and recognized that this was a major test of our support for free expression. Chancellor Harvey Perlman wrote in a letter to UNL students that "given Ayers' background, reasonable people could regard him with disgust, yet our traditions permit individuals to speak, even if their backgrounds or ideas are objectionable."