Civil Liberties

Republicans Don't Support Campus Free Speech When It Concerns Bill Ayers

Campus censorship: It's not just for far-left social justice warriors (and never has been)


Bill Ayers
Fox News

Campus censorship: It's not just for far-left social justice warriors (and never has been). Some Republican politicians are perfectly willing to set aside their support for free speech when the speaker in question is a source of conservative ire.

I'm speaking, of course, about Bill Ayers.

Ayers, a former 1960s radical, is considered a domestic terrorist for his participation in Weather Underground's activities, though all charges against him were dropped decades ago. He now teaches and lectures about social justice.

His recent visit to Pennsylvania State University triggered the exact sort of hand-wringing about the limits of free speech that one frequently hears coming from the left. According to

About a half-dozen senators and representatives took their outrage to [Penn State President] Barron in two separate hearings Tuesday, many even while saying they understood the decision to bring in Ayers was not the president's call.

Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County, expressed shock that any group of students could look at Ayers as a guy "we should have in here to inspire us or get our education."

Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, bemoaned the fact that Ayers, whom he called "an unrepentant engineer of standing against everything… this country was founded on," was paid to speak instead of World War II veterans or leaders of the American Civil Rights movement. …

Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny County and a former police officer, raged that Ayers' appearance was "an affront to policemen, to veterans… and the rule of law.

Barron shielded himself with the armor of free speech. …

But several lawmakers persisted in asking Barron to do more.

Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Indiana County, asked if students – or their parents – can ask for refunds for a portion of student activity fees used to support programs they want nothing to do with.

"At what point do you step in?" asked Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, raising the specter of groups that that are potentially far more dangerous right now seeking an audience on campus.

At no point does the president of a public university step in to prohibit students from bringing a controversial speaker to campus. This is exactly what college is for—the opportunity to interact with perspectives that challenge one's own, that present different, even disturbing, ideas. Unfortunately, too many people on both the left and the right see the public square as a place where only friendly ideas should be allowed.

In this case, I speak from personal experience. I met Ayers in 2010, when he visited the University of Michigan during my senior year of college. I interviewed him for a long piece I was writing for the student paper, The Michigan Daily, about the history of radical activism on campus. Upon meeting him, was I instantly persuaded that all of his ideas were good? Of course not. Nevertheless, I found him to be a fascinating figure with a well-informed perspective on the subject I was researching. I value having had the chance to speak with him—I daresay I'm a smarter person because of it.

We must resist efforts to deprive students of similar opportunities, whether they come from thin-skinned hypocrites on the right or the left.

(I dug up my Daily article on Ayers and activism; it's here. Fun fact: Immediately after it was published, I submitted it as a clip for my Reason internship application. I got the job.)