The attempted cancellation of Ray Luc Levasseur’s talk at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, under pressure from Governor Patrick’s office, raises serious concerns not only about the state of academic freedom at the University but also about the Governor’s respect for the First Amendment.
UMass, in an effort to educate students about the social unrest that occurred during the 1960s and 70s, invited the former leader of the United Freedom Front (a group responsible for a number of bombings in the 1970s and 80s) to share his perspective on a 1989 landmark sedition trial in which he was acquitted.
Facing pressure from the National Association of Police and the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association, Governor Deval Patrick strongly advised the University to prevent Levasseur from speaking.
Although UMass complied with the governor’s wishes and dis-invited Levasseur, it refused to interfere when a faculty group re-invited the speaker, explaining that “As a university, we defend the principles of free speech and of academic freedom.”
UMass is taking a stand for free expression. As we’ve said before, a university does not endorse the views of visiting speakers anymore than it endorses the ideas in every book in its library. Censoring speech and the expression of controversial ideas does nothing to right the wrongs suffered by the victims of the United Freedom Front’s actions. Instead, by prohibiting Levasseur to speak about a tumultuous time in history, the state is denying students at its flagship public university the opportunity to gain a full and nuanced perspective on historical events. How else can students become critical thinkers capable of countering the ideas of those with whom they disagree and even morally deplore?
In the U.S. we condemn Levasseur’s violent actions, but our constitution gives us the right to listen to his story. A message that has apparently yet to reach the Massachusetts State Senate, where members passed a resolution condemning Levasseur’s invitation.
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