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U. Penn Students, Profs Declare Support For Bill Ayers

This story was written by Lara Seligman, Daily Pennsylvanian
For Graduate School of Education student Kathy Schultz, the allegations being leveled against University of Illinois-Chicago education professor Bill Ayers are "charges of McCarthysim."

That's what caused her to join the more than 3,200 people - including eight others affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania - in signing a recent national petition in support of Ayers.

The education professor is currently under attack from Republican nominee John McCain's campaign for his connection to a group called the Weather Underground that conducted several bombings in the 1970s as part of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

There has been a spate of blog and newspaper articles linking Ayers to Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate. These efforts are seen by many as "increasing acts of desperation," by the McCain campaign to impugn Obama, Schultz said.

The petition calls the attacks on Ayers unrepresentative of his actions and an assassination of his character that threaten educational organizations as spaces of "open inquiry and debate" and "free thought."

"Bill Ayers has a history of being a really great radical activist who did a lot to push issues of equity and justice in this country," said Sonia Rosen, Graduate School of Education student and signer of the petition. "I really hate to see him maligned in the media."

Ayers and Obama lived within a few blocks of each other in Chicago for several years. Both worked on education reform in the state of Illinois and were members of the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty group.

Ayers also contributed $200 to Obama's re-election campaign to the Illinois State Senate in April 2001.

Much of the controversy surrounding Ayers since 2000 stems from an interview he gave to The New York Times that was published on Sept. 11, 2001.

The reporter quoted him as saying, "I don't regret setting bombs" and "I feel we didn't do enough," regarding his involvement with the Weather Underground.

Although in recent years Ayers has made it clear that he was speaking only in reference to his efforts to stop the Vietnam War, many have tried to connect Ayers' statements and 9/11 - charges many say are unwarranted.

In light of the recent criticism, the Obama campaign has been trying to distance itself from Ayers, said Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School of Communication and petition signer Dan Berger.

"It's ridiculous because some of the most important changes in this country have come out of organized resistance," said Rosen, adding that Obama himself started out as a community organizer.

However, some see Obama's response as normal for a political figure in his position.

"I think he's just doing what most public figures do when a negative event comes out," Berger said, though he called the allegations "really disgusting attacks."

While Rosen does not think the petition will have a concrete effect on the campaign or the media, she said it will help to alter the public discourse and offer an opposing or contradictory view than what the media represents.

"(The attacks) serve as warnings that anyone who voices perspectives and advances questions that challenge orthodoxy and political power may become a target," the petition states. "This, then, casts a chill over free speech and inquiry and the spirit of democracy."