Threats Are Not Enough to Stop Ayers's Speech, Judge Rules in Wyoming Case

April 27, 2010

The University of Wyoming cannot refuse to rent its property for a speech by the education scholar and former radical William Ayers, a federal judge in Casper, Wyo., ruled on Tuesday.

The ruling, which the university is not contesting, was on a motion related to a lawsuit that Mr. Ayers and a student filed against the university.

The case has its roots in an earlier engagement at Wyoming for Mr. Ayers that was canceled.

The university's Social Justice Research Center had invited Mr. Ayers, who is a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to speak in early April, but the center's director canceled that appearance. The university cited safety concerns, saying it had received a number of complaints and threatening messages related to Mr. Ayers, who was a member during the Vietnam War-era of an activist group known as the Weather Underground.

After the earlier event was canceled, a student, Meghan Lanker, invited Mr. Ayers to speak on the campus in a student-sponsored event that was scheduled for this Wednesday. She tried to rent a multipurpose space in the UniWyo Sports Complex on the Laramie campus for the event, but the university's general counsel advised her that the venue would not be available, according to court documents.

Ms. Lanker and Mr. Ayers then sued the university, accusing it of violating their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

They also filed a motion asking the judge to issue a temporary order requiring the university to let the speech go forward at the sports complex while the lawsuit is pending.

In the motion, Mr. Ayers and Ms. Lanker argued that the university's actions were an unconstitutional attempt to censor Mr. Ayers "based solely on his perceived message and his activist political background."

In a response filed with the court, the university had argued that it could refuse to rent out the UniWyo Sports Complex to protect students from potential violence.

In his ruling, Judge William Downes said that the evidence suggests that the university attempted to ban Mr. Ayers from speaking because of his history and not because of the vague safety concerns it raised, according to the Casper Star-Tribune.

"This court is of age to remember the Weather Underground," Judge Downes said. "When his group was bombing the Capitol in 1971, I was serving in the uniform of my country. Like many veterans, when I hear that name," he said of Mr. Ayers, "I can scarcely swallow the bile of my contempt for it. But Mr. Ayers is a citizen of the United States who wishes to speak, and he need not offer any more justification than that."

The Weather Underground, which Mr. Ayers helped start in the late 1960s, was a radical group that bombed government buildings to protest the Vietnam War. He was charged with conspiracy to bomb government buildings, but the charges were later dropped.

The University of Wyoming said in a news release that it would comply with the court's order and would provide "appropriate security" for the speech at the UniWyo Sports Complex.

The Star-Tribune reported that it was unclear if Mr. Ayers would speak at that venue on Wednesday; the university's lawyer said the institution would try to make Ms. Lanker take out a liability insurance policy before the event, but Judge Downes said that the university could not place "unreasonable contractual demands" on Ms. Lanker or Mr. Ayers.

The lawyer representing Mr. Ayers and Ms. Lanker could not be reached for comment on Tuesday afternoon, but the Star-Tribune reported that Ms. Lanker was thrilled by the ruling.

"I'm in shock, I'm floating, I'm on cloud nine, I'm excited," she said. "This went better than I expected. I was expecting to win, but I wasn't expecting to win so well, I guess—to win and get everything that we wanted."