The First Amendment Protects Ann Coulter, William Ayers, And The Westboro Baptist Church

This morning brings the news that a speech by former Weather Underground leader William Ayers at the University of Wyoming has been canceled:

The University of Wyoming announced Tuesday that a public lecture by William “Bill” Ayers, a former 1970s radical antiwar protestor who is now a university professor, has been canceled.

Ayers, 65, a distinguished professor of education and senior scholar at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), had been scheduled to give a public lecture from 4-6 p.m. Monday in the UW Education Auditorium.

The public lecture had been sponsored by the UW Social Justice Research Center, which is a privately endowed center that studies problems of oppression and inequalities among different social groups.

Titled “Trudge Toward Freedom: Educational Research in the Public Interest,” the talk would have focused on what makes education in a democracy different from other societies, as well as the importance of teachers seeing their students are more than just students, but whole human beings.

UW released a statement on its Web site on Tuesday afternoon explaining why the Social Justice Research Center had decided to cancel Ayers’ visit.

In the statement, the director of the center, UW Educational Studies chair Francisco Rios, apologized to the university community for any harm that may have come to it, and cited personal and professional reasons — including safety concerns — for the cancellation.

This is pretty much the same reason that the University of Ottawa used when it canceled Ann Coulter’s speech there a week or so back.

And it’s bogus.

First of all, it’s worth noting that the University of Wyoming is a public institution so the First Amendment applies. The fact that Ayers is controversial, or that he’ll say things that might offend people, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the right to say it. In fact, as I noted some four years when I first discussed the Westboro Baptist Church protesters, offensive speech is perhaps the most important speech to protect:

Over the past several weeks, several states have taken steps to prevent protesters from picketing at funerals, a move propelled by the fact that an objectively offensive group of extreme Christians have been staging protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq claiming that the deaths America is experiencing in Iraq are God’s punishment for tolerating homosexuality. Offensive ? Absolutely ? Should they have the right to be offensive ? I can’t see any reason why not.

Freedom of speech means that, sometimes, we will hear some truly offensive things. When government starts regulating speech based on the fact that it may offend, though, it diminishes freedom for everyone.

Exactly. I despise the Westboro Baptist Church protesters, I think Ann Coulter is mostly an idiot, and really don’t care what a tired old leftist like Bill Ayers has to say. Nonetheless, they all have a right to say it.

C/P: Below The Beltway

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  • Chris

    On the above final note that Coulter and Ayers are idiots, perhaps that was the motivating factor why those particular institutions decided to unwelcome them (It’d be for me). Isn’t it their prerogative to invite and cancel? Perhaps Westboro or UW shouldn’t have ever offered, but it doesn’t necessarily disqualify their renigs.

    There’s no question anyone has the right to speak freely, but to fairly judge any institution’s (public or private) decision to invite or dis invite any formal speaker, shouldn’t their motive or reasoning behind it be judged i.e whether they’re blocking opposing ideologies to protect their comfort zone, or even canceling due to foreseeable acrimony.

    As to some state’s recent legislation to block picketing at funerals, I could only agree with a law that refined jurisdictional legality with regards to public harassment. Unfortunately, I do not foresee that to be the case, and eventually some state(s) will likely right-out ban any form of protest during funerals.

  • Doug Mataconis


    If its a public institution, it’s governed by the First Amendment.