William Ayers must be allowed to speak at the University of Wyoming, judge rules in David Lane victory

We've kept you abreast of developments regarding the University of Wyoming's attempt to ban controversial professor William Ayers from speaking on campus -- an effort that led to a lawsuit filed by Denver attorney David Lane.

Yesterday, United States District Court Judge William Downes held a hearing in Casper at which the university claimed its actions were motivated by security concerns, not speech issues. But Downes didn't buy that.

Moments ago, he delivered a ruling videoconferenced to Denver during which he ordered that Ayers be allowed to speak at the university tomorrow.

Downes cited a four-part test in his decision, ruling that Ayers's free speech had been violated, that the university's decision to bar him would cause irreparable harm, that his speech would be in the public interest, and that he can speak in the campus's multipurpose gym. Although he said it's unclear if the gym is a designated free speech area or a limited public forum, he determined that the point is moot because the school has no written policy establishing its status.

Regarding the security concerns, Downes said, "These fears were based on, at best, veiled or indirect threats and apprehension" -- calling it a "heckler's veto." He stressed that "fear is not enough to override the First Amendment."

After reading an e-mail sent to the university by an anonymous individual, who felt school officials were "f-ing morons" for letting Ayers speak, Downes asked, "Where is the threat in that?" The same went for other terms, including "douchebag," "assholes" and "prick," as in this sample message: "For those of you who allowed this prick to speak, I think you should eat a mouth full of buck shot... All the worst to you. Mike."

About the author of this note, Downes said, "Mike is heavily exercised, and he leaves us no doubt about his opinion of Mr. Ayers. But to read that as a direct threat is patently ridiculous."

Among the precedents cited by Downes was 1965's Willams v. Wallace, in which Judge Frank Johnson ordered that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King Jr. be allowed to march from Selma to Montgomery -- a landmark ruling in the civil rights movement.

Downes added, "The Bill of Rights is a document for all seasons... Mr. Ayers is a citizen who wants to speak. He needn't have any more justification than that." He ordered the university to work with the plaintiffs, led by student Meg Lanker, to organize Ayers' speech, which is slated to take place at the multi-purpose gym on campus tomorrow at a time to be determined.

Lane's take? "Judge Downes acted in a very courageous fashion," he says. "This should send a message to universities across the country that they can't use security as an excuse to stifle free speech."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts