Judge: Threats don't justify speaker ban

Judge: Threats don't justify speaker ban

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Threats of violence alone do not justify preventing someone from speaking on campus, U.S. District Judge William Downes told University of Wyoming President Tom Buchanan this afternoon.

During a court hearing in Casper, Buchanan said in response that he wasn't aware of that provision in the law. He said his decision to not allow 1960s radical-turned-academic Bill Ayers to speak this week at a UW athletic facility was based solely on the possibility that it would provoke violence on campus.

It was the first public confirmation that the decision was made by Buchanan. But the president denied that his decision constituted a ban of Ayers speaking on the entire campus. He said the decision was based solely on a request by UW student Meg Lanker to, for a fee, use the UniWyo Sports Complex on Wednesday evening for a speech by Ayers.

Earlier in the day, Downes poked a hole in that argument by pointing out that UW's general counsel told Lanker in an e-mail that the entire university wouldn't be available as a venue, without specifying the sports complex.

Under cross-examination by David Lane, attorney for Ayers and Lanker, Buchanan said he would probably allow Ayers to speak on Prexy's Pasture, an open field near the center of campus. Lane suggested that didn't make sense, as security concerns for such an outdoor vendor would seem to be more acute than for the sports complex, where people could be screened before entering.

Buchanan also acknowledged that he hadn't consulted with law enforcement before deciding to not allow Ayers to speak at the sports complex.

Under questioning from UW attorney Tom Rice, Buchanan said the university had received a "torrent" of "angry, hateful and venomous" e-mails and phone calls from people regarding a scheduled April 5-6 appearance of Ayers at the invitation of the privately funded UW Social Justice Research Center. The director of the center, Francisco Rios, rescinded the invitation as a result of the public outrage.

Buchanan said there were numerous implied and direct threats leveled in calls and e-mails to the university, "unlike anything I have seen in my 30 years" at UW. He said he feared that if Ayers were to come, there was a good possibility that there would be violence on campus, and the appropriate response to assure a safe and secure campus for students and employees was to prevent Ayers from speaking at the sports complex.

Under questioning from Lane, Buchanan also disclosed that a number of UW supporters had threatened to cease contributing money to the university. He specifically noted John Martin of Casper, who has donated millions to UW in recent years.

Buchanan also noted that three members of the UW board of trustees -- Betty Fear, Brad Mead and Taylor Haynes -- had expressed their displeasure about the prospect of Ayers speaking on campus. Other trustees spoke in support, however.

The primary objection of those against Ayers' appearance was his background as a militant anti-war activist in the 1960s and '70s, Buchanan and others testified. But the president said those concerns were not a factor in his decision.

Earlier in the day, Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder told the court that the university never reported threats of violence to his police department despite years of cooperation and intelligence sharing between the agencies. Stalder testified under subpoena after the Laramie city attorney unsuccessfully tried to prevent Stalder from talking.

Before taking opening statements, Downes chastised Lane for piping Ayers into the courtroom via telephone instead of having him in person or in another federal courthouse. Ayers testified from Chicago, where he is a professor.

Lanker testified about her desire to bring Ayers to campus. Rice pointed out that Lanker had admitted in 2005 to pointing a gun at a former employer -- a line of questioning quickly stopped by Downes after Lanker's attorneys objected.

Rice said he wasn't trying to "impeach" Lanker, but said the 5-year-old incident was relevant because she was hosting an event that had received threats of violence. When the court recessed for lunch, Lanker called Rice's question a "dirty trick" and said if the university had problems with her past, it shouldn't have readmitted her to the university.

The university has been in a tug-of-war for the past month over the on-again, off-again nature of Ayers' scheduled speaking appearance.

Last month, the Social Justice Research Center invited Ayers to speak on campus as part of a biannual lecture series sponsored by the privately-funded research group. A UW spokeswoman said at the time that no taxpayer funds were used to pay for Ayers' scheduled visit.

Two days later, the group withdrew its invitation while Buchanan said it would be a "mistake" to say it caved to public and private pressure.

Much of the criticism stemmed from Ayers' radical past -- in the late 1960s he helped found a militant terrorist group which 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 university's decision, invited Ayers back to campus to speak in a classroom reserved by a UW student group. She was told by the university's attorney that Ayers would still not be allowed to speak on campus.

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