While William Downes was a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, William Ayers was bombing U.S. government buildings as co-founder of a militant anti-war group called the Weather Underground.
Downes, now a U.S. district judge, made special note of those contrasting backgrounds when he ruled Tuesday against the University of Wyoming's decision to ban Ayers from speaking on campus.
"This court is of age to remember the Weather Underground. When his group was bombing the U.S. Capitol in 1971, I was serving in the uniform of my country," Downes said. "Even to this day, when I hear that name, 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."
Downes delivered his ruling Tuesday afternoon in his federal courtroom in Casper, after hearing more than five hours of testimony Monday. The judge, finding that UW had violated Ayers' First Amendment rights, issued an injunction sought by Ayers and UW student Meg Lanker forcing UW to allow Ayers to speak today at the UniWyo Sports Complex on campus in Laramie.
Ayers is now scheduled to speak from 7 to 9 p.m. in the sports complex, Lanker said after the ruling. That speech bumps his scheduled appearance at the Laramie Civic Center from the schedule.
"I'm in shock, I'm floating, I'm on cloud nine, I'm excited," Lanker 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."
Bryan Profaizer, president of a conservative student group at the university, said he expected some effort to organize a protest of Ayers.
"To what magnitude, I don't know at this point," Profaizer said.
'Where is the threat?'
Downes said the evidence presented during testimony on Monday suggested that UW's decision to ban Ayers from university facilities was inspired by his past association with a "despicable" group, and not the safety concerns university officials repeatedly cited.
The judge read an e-mail in which a man said he and others would travel to Laramie to protest Ayers' visit. The university had offered it as an example of threats that prompted a UW attorney to tell Lanker that UW would not be a venue for Ayers' speech.
"Where is the threat in that?" Downes asked. "If he and other citizens are concerned and want to assemble, where is the threat?"
The judge also dismissed other specific messages received by UW officials from angry members of the public as "at most veiled and indirect" threats.
UW officials released a statement Tuesday afternoon restating "serious security concerns," but saying they would comply with the judge's order and "do everything in our power to provide a safe and secure environment" for Ayers' visit.
"Litigation resulted from my decision to deny the use of the university multi-purpose gymnasium. This occurred during a period of increasingly volatile and threatening communication to the university community," UW President Tom Buchanan said in the media release. "The heart of the issue was whether as president of the university, I can cancel a speaking engagement if I believe there are overriding safety concerns for the university community. Let me be clear, the safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors to our campus will always remain a paramount concern at UW."
In his ruling, Downes read from different court cases from across the country for 15 minutes -- each case concluding that the threat of violence did not justify suspension of the First Amendment.
The judge's decision all but puts to rest the ongoing saga between university administrators and free speech proponents who have badgered the university for its decision to disinvite Ayers to an early April speech and ban him from a separate speaking engagement scheduled today.
The university's defense hinged on two key points, both of which were undermined Monday by testimony and other evidence presented in court.
Tom Rice, attorney for the university, argued the school only denied Ayers the use of one particular facility. Lanker testified that she was told by a UW lawyer on the phone that the entire campus would not be available, and the same message was conveyed in a follow-up e-mail.
"The court need not take Lanker's word -- the substance of that conversation was confirmed in an e-mail," Downes said.
Rice also argued that the threats conveyed to university employees and administrators gave Buchanan the right to prevent Ayers from speaking, though Downes at one point asked Buchanan if he knew that the threat of violence isn't ample reason to suspend the First Amendment. Buchanan said he did not know that.
Laramie's police chief also testified under subpoena that the university never alerted his department to any of the threats, testimony Downes used to cast doubt upon how seriously the university took the threats.
The UW Social Justice Research Center invited Ayers to speak about education on campus as part of a biannual lecture series, but the sponsoring professor withdrew the invitation after seeing the strife Ayers' scheduled appearance created.
Much of the criticism from the public and some university trustees, according to Buchanan's testimony Monday, stemmed from Ayers' radical past. The Weather Underground protested the Vietnam War by bombing the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol and other government buildings. He was caught in 1974, but federal charges of conspiracy to bomb police stations were dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct.
Lanker, angered by the decision to withdraw the invitation to Ayers, invited him back to campus but was told the university would not be available for an Ayers speech. That prompted the lawsuit.
Star-Tribune reporter Jeremy Pelzer contributed to this report from Laramie.
Reach city reporter Pete Nickeas at firstname.lastname@example.org or (307) 266-0639.
Ayers at UW
* Bill Ayers, education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and 1960s anti-war activist, is scheduled to speak from 7 to 9 p.m. today at the UniWyo Sports Complex on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie. Organizers say he will discuss free speech and academic freedom. UW police are providing security.
* Ayers is scheduled to arrive in Laramie around 1 p.m. Following lunch with student Megan Lanker and other supporters of his visit, he's scheduled to tour the campus. He's also expected to attend, but not speak at, UW Day of Diversity activities in the Wyoming Union's Yellowstone Ballroom in the afternoon.
* Follow www.trib.com throughout the date for updates, photos and video.
* Go to www.twitter.com/CSTribune or search #ayersuw.