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Bill Ayers Sues College for Barring Speech

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (CN) - Former 1960s radical and current political lightning rod William Ayers says it was unconstitutional for the University of Wyoming to cancel his two scheduled speaking appearances because of criticism and purported safety concerns.

Ayers, a co-founder of the Weather Underground, is a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. In a federal complaint, he accuses the University of Wyoming of canceling his speeches because "officials at the university are opposed to his political beliefs."

Ayers says the UW and its President Tom Buchanan "engaged in censoring him based solely upon his perceived message and his activist political background."

He seeks an injunction barring the university from enforcing its prior restraint, which would allow Ayers to deliver a speech on campus April 28.

Ayers became notorious for his participation in Weather Underground's campaign of bombing public buildings during the late 1960s and 1970s. Originally called the Weatherman, its origins were the left-wing radical, but generally nonviolent, Students for a Democratic Society, according to a 1975 U.S. Senate subcommittee report, "State Department Bombing by Weatherman Underground."

His tenuous connections to President Obama were highlighted and intensely scrutinized during the 2008 presidential campaign. Despite Ayers denying that he had any "meaningful connection" to Obama, the future president's political foes accused him of, among other things, "palling around with terrorists."

"Professor Ayers continues to be falsely labeled as everything from a radical, terrorist, communist, Nazi, and is largely demonized by members of the Republican Party and, since the 2008 election, the 'Tea Party' movement," according to the complaint.

Ayers is a graduate of the University of Michigan, Bennington College and Teachers College, Columbia University. He's "written extensively about social justice, democracy and education, the cultural contexts of schooling, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise," the complaint states.

He was scheduled to give a public lecture on April 5 and a speech to faculty the next day.

However, "As the University of Wyoming began to publicize Professor Ayers' scheduled visit, a campaign to rescind the invitation was initiated on several right-wing blogs.

"A wave of hateful messages hit the University of Wyoming, and this criticism was joined by political leaders and wealthy donors who demanded that university officials cancel Professor Ayers' visit to the campus on threat of withholding donations," according to the complaint.

Citing "vicious e-mails and threatening letters," as well as "promises of physical disruption if Professor Ayers gave his two scheduled appearances," the school pulled the plug on the visit.

Ayers claims the "defendants are depriving plaintiffs of their rights to free speech, their rights to hear a speaker, and their rights to assemble and associate freely," violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

"Academic freedom is a core principle of any institution of higher education," UW President Buchanan said in a statement announcing the cancellation. "But with that freedom comes an obligation to exercise free thought and free speech in concert with mutual respect and acknowledgment of broader resource and security impacts on the campus. The exercise of freedom requires a commensurate dose of responsibility."

Buchanan said his university did not "cave to external pressure," but was "sensitive to the outpouring of criticism."

Co-plaintiff Meghan Lanker, a University of Wyoming student, contends it's the students' constitutional right "to hear what Professor Ayers has to say, to associate with others of mind and philosophy, and to freely assemble for lawful purposes."

Lead counsel for the plaintiffs is David A. Lane with Killmer, Lane & Newman of Denver.

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