Citing in part the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's decision last fall to cancel a speech by William Ayers, a long list of academic groups have signed a statement urging universities to stand up for free speech in the face of threats of violence.
The statement, issued Monday, says academia's "long-standing commitment to the free exchange of ideas is in peril of falling victim to a spreading fear of violence."
It cites a number of examples of cancellations and censorships, including:
- A recent decision by the Yale University Press to remove all images of the Muslim prophet Mohammed from a scholarly book for fear the images would incite violence.
- A 2005 decision by Hamilton College in New York to cancel a speech by Ward Churchill, a former University of Colorado professor who likened victims of the 9/11 attacks to "little Eichmanns."
- UNL's 2008 cancellation in the wake of violent threats against Ayers, who was a member of a group called Weather Underground that bombed buildings in protest of the Vietnam War.
"Suppressing controversial expression cannot erase the underlying social tensions that create the conditions for violence to begin with, but it does create a climate that chills and eventually corrupts the fundamental values of liberal democracy," the statement says.
"The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it. It is time for colleges and universities in particular to exercise moral and intellectual leadership."
The statement is endorsed by 16 groups, including the American Association of University Professors and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ayers, now an award-winning education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, had been invited to speak during the centennial celebration for UNL's College of Education and Human Sciences.
But because of his radical past, news of the invitation sparked an immediate public outrage. A team of UNL security experts inspected the flood of e-mails, phone messages and blog posts -- some of which contained explicit threats on Ayers' life -- and determined his visit risked both his and the campus' safety.
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman then canceled the speech.
Ayers did, however, finally get his chance to speak in Nebraska. He delivered remarks Nov. 14 in Omaha, courtesy of the private group Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska.
Reach Melissa Lee at 473-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.