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Ayers says canceled appearance teaches 'terrible lessons'
By Melissa Jenco | Daily Herald Staff

Bill Ayers


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Published: 4/1/2009 12:00 AM

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Controversial author Bill Ayers says separate decisions by school officials and a bookshop owner to cancel his scheduled appearances next week in Naperville are "absurd" and "outrageous."

The University of Illinois-Chicago education professor was booked to speak at Naperville North High School and Anderson's Bookshop, but plans for both were scrapped Monday after heavy criticism from some portions of the community.

"This cancellation provides terrible lessons for these young people about the limits of freedom and the importance of obedience, and it must be painful for many of them to watch people they admire collapse under pressure," Ayers wrote Tuesday in an e-mail. "It has all the hallmarks of suppression of speech: incitement of fear, intimidation of well-meaning folks, mob rule."

Critics, on the other hand, argued Ayers, a Glen Ellyn native, isn't the type of speaker who should be allowed to speak to students in a tax-supported high school.

Before his college teaching days, Ayers co-founded the Weather Underground, an anti-Vietnam war group responsible for a series of bombings at public buildings in the 1960s and '70s. He had faded from the spotlight in recent years until the presidential election, in which his ties to President Barack Obama were called into question.

Naperville North history teacher Kermit Eby was once Ayers' student and invited him to speak at the school. Students were required to obtain parental permission to attend.

But when some District 203 parents and community members learned early last week of Ayers' scheduled appearance, they flooded the district with angry phone calls and e-mails. Critics commenting on newspaper Web sites and contacting school administrators repeatedly referred to Ayers as a terrorist.

In a districtwide e-mail Monday, Naperville Unit District 203 Superintendent Alan Leis announced the cancellation, saying, "Any value to our students would be lost in such a highly charged atmosphere and any debate of issues or viewpoints would be overshadowed by media coverage and anger over the event itself."

Leis told the Daily Herald he initially thought Ayers would be an interesting speaker because of his connections to the presidential election. But he said he became more troubled as he did more research, and, "it's very hard to figure out who this guy is."

"It is truly amazing the level of anger and emotion around this issue," Leis said Monday.

Ayers spoke with the Daily Herald by phone Tuesday and said he believes he has been inaccurately portrayed by his critics.

"There's not a shred of truth in what was said by Fox News or right-wing bloggers," he said. "They've got this caricature they're beating up, but it's not me."

Ayers said while it's true his Weather Underground group intentionally broke the law, he never hurt or killed anyone and has "met his judicial obligations." He said he condemns acts of terror and has never advocated violence.

Although he says he has regrets about some of his actions, opposing the Vietnam War isn't one of them.

"People could say they disagree or I'm nuts or despicable, but they would have to know the U.S. government ... was killing 6,000 people a week," he said. "That was also despicable."

Among those lining up to disagree with Ayers' views is Sol Stern, senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, who has studied the educator and is writing a book about him.

Stern blasted Ayers in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last fall, saying Ayers' "hatred of America is as virulent as when he planted a bomb at the Pentagon."

Stern went on to call Ayers a "school destroyer" in his essay and said his education reform movement is "bringing radical social justice teaching into our public school classrooms."

Asked what he would have discussed with Naperville students, Ayers said he couldn't summarize his presentation in a sentence or two and pointed to his blog entries at about democracy in education.

He said the issue isn't about what he would have said; it's about being allowed to say it.

"To me (banning the talk) runs against the spirit of what they think they're defending," he said. "If they think they're defending democracy, what better way to defend it than to allow a conversation and defeat the noxious ideas in a public square, not suppress them."

Naperville North is not the only school to cancel one of his talks. Ayers was scheduled to speak at Boston College Monday via satellite - a compromise from the original plan to speak in person - but the college canceled both events because of the backlash from area residents and police officers, according to The Boston Globe. The Weather Underground allegedly was involved in a 1970 bank robbery that killed a Boston police officer, the newspaper reported.

While Naperville students may not hear Ayers speak, students from Highland Park High School recently did.

In January, Ayers spoke with about 80 students and faculty during an after-school event held on campus. His talk was sponsored by the Highland Park Young Democrats, a club made up of students but not sponsored by the school.

Those there say Ayers spoke about a variety of topics, including the death penalty, war crimes, human rights, the recent election, his children and his time in the Weather Underground.

Science teacher Jonathan Weiland, who informally supervises the club, said Ayers did not advocate violence when talking to students during the event or at a dinner afterward. According to Weiland, Ayers said he was not proud of what he had done but pointed to others who he felt had done worse during the Vietnam War.

Weiland called the speech a successful event and a good opportunity for students.

"I think school should be about the education of people and it was one opportunity of thousands that students have at our school and any school to see living history," Weiland said.

Also among those there was Highland Park junior Joey Kalmin, a self-described conservative Republican who strongly supported John McCain in the presidential race.

Kalmin said in talking with Ayers he found him to be "a nice guy and I still disagree with him on 99.5 percent of what he said."

Nice guy or not, Kalmin said he considers Ayers a criminal because of his past and feels another setting may have been more appropriate. He said he attended the talk in an effort to be open-minded and hear another point of view.

"If I wanted to hear my own opinion," he said, "I could yell it in the mirror."