Stanford University, renowned as a global hub of intellectual freedom, says it will bar the public from attending a panel discussion Monday night because one of the speakers is "controversial."
The speaker, who goes by the name Walid Shoebat, has been making the rounds on the nation's lecture circuit claiming to be a former Palestinian terrorist-turned-Israeli-sympathizer.
The Stanford College Republicans, a student group, invited Shoebat and two companions who bill themselves as the "3 Ex-Terrorists." They made the invitation as a favor to another group, Students for an Open Society, which lacks the official standing needed to invite speakers to campus.
The students thought the public would be able to attend the event, but were told a couple of weeks ago that attendance would be restricted due to "security concerns," said Megan Reiss, president of the Stanford College Republicans.
"At a private school, we're not subject to the same rights as public schools," Reiss said. "But I'm writing an op-ed piece right now saying they may have the right to do this, but it's going against Stanford's tradition of allowing the free flow of ideas."
Stanford spokeswoman Elaine Ray said security was not the university's concern.
"We're not worried about violence," she said. "This is a controversial speaker, and we want to make sure that our students have a constructive dialogue."
Ray declined to say what made Shoebat so controversial that attendance should be restricted at the 595-seat Kresge Auditorium.
She acknowledged that Stanford University not only hosts public meetings of divisive figures from time to time but also has faculty members who might be considered controversial.
Asked what other Stanford events are barred to the public, Ray noted that the university restricted access to events featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, author Khaled Hosseini, executive Carly Fiorina and former Vice President Al Gore.
She did not respond to an e-mail asking why those events were closed. Universities often restrict attendance at extremely popular events for space reasons.
By contrast, the public was welcome to attend an event with the controversial DePaul University Professor Norm Finkelstein, who accuses Jews of using the Holocaust to gain sympathy, said Jessica Chernick of Students for an Open Society.
Keith Davies, who represents the 3 Ex-Terrorists -- Shoebat, Kamal Saleem and Zak Anani -- expressed consternation with Stanford's decision.
"We feel that there was a deliberate effort to try and sabotage this event," he said Thursday.
Davies said the privately funded Shoebat Foundation underwrites the lectures, which cost $20,000 to $30,000, including travel and security.
He said that Shoebat, whose online biography says he is a former software engineer, earns about $150,000 lecturing and selling books about his experiences.
Davies said that other speaking events with the three have all gone smoothly. Earlier this year, Shoebat spoke at UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara, events that were open to the public. An article in UC Santa Barbara's Daily Nexus described a raucous scene as Shoebat told the audience of his past as a PLO terrorist and subsequent conversion to Christianity.
"The reactions of the several hundred attendees ranged from supportive to visibly shaken by what they called Islamophobic rhetoric, an accusation Shoebat denied and said misinterpreted his message," wrote reporter Jessica Mullen.
"Shoebat and several audience members entered into what at times was a shouting match over this point," she wrote. "Conversation about the speech -- as well as Israeli-Arab relations -- continued amongst audience members for at least two hours after the lecture."
Associate Vice Chancellor Paul Desruisseaux of UC Santa Barbara said it was appropriate that the event was open to the public.
"We're a university," he said. "We're here to advance discussion that helps lead to new knowledge and to advance perspectives."