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Book store: Safety concerns forced cancellation of Ayers appearance
By Melissa Jenco | Daily Herald Staff

Bill Ayers

 

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Published: 4/2/2009 12:03 AM

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It was concerns with patron and employee safety that prompted Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville this week to cancel a scheduled appearance by controversial author Bill Ayers, store officials said Wednesday.

"The hysterical and ugly comments about the appearance multiplied each day and we feared our customers and staff might be in physical jeopardy if we held the scheduled program," officials said in a prepared statement.

Store officials said they are working on plans to hold a town meeting to discuss the freedom of speech debate sparked by the firestorm over Ayers' scheduled appearance.

Ayers was slated to speak next week both at the downtown store and at Naperville North High School.

The University of Illinois-Chicago education professor gained notoriety in the 1960s and '70s when he co-founded the Weather Underground, an anti-Vietnam war group responsible for a series of bombings at public buildings. He had faded from the spotlight until his ties to President Barack Obama were called into question during the recent election.

When the community learned of his invitations to speak, some residents flooded Naperville Unit District 203 and Anderson's with angry phone calls and e-mails. On newspaper Web sites, commenters repeatedly referred to Ayers as a terrorist.

The backlash prompted both school and store leaders to cancel their events.

In a districtwide e-mail sent Monday, Naperville Unit District 203 Superintendent Alan Leis said, "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."

Anderson's also pulled the plug on Ayers' appearance on Monday, but didn't explain its decision until releasing its statement Wednesday.

Store spokeswoman Gail Wetta would not say if there were any actual threats but said "there was a concern."

She said the store never intended to offend either side of the debate when it invited Ayers to speak.

"We are not happy about having to make this decision," the store's statement says. "Bookstores play an integral part in the process by which ideas are disseminated and debated. Debate is essential in our society and we take seriously our responsibility to promote ideas, including those that we personally do not endorse or condone."

Ayers spoke with the Daily Herald Tuesday both by phone and e-mail about the school cancellation and said "it has all the hallmarks of suppression of speech: incitement of fear, intimidation of well-meaning folks, mob rule."

He said he has never hurt or killed anyone and has been inaccurately portrayed by his critics.

In their e-mail, Anderson's officials said they, too, feel "freedom of speech was threatened" and they will play host to a town meeting to discuss that issue. Details as to the time and place have not been set.

"We're going to bring together voices in the community to hopefully have open and full discussion about free speech and its place in our current society," Wetta said. "It's a tall order and a big dream, but that's what we want to positively take from what was a very negative experience."