A lecture by 1970s anti-war militant Bill Ayers at Saint Mary's College is generating heated opposition from those who see him as an unapologetic terrorist with nothing of value to offer what they say are impressionable students.

Move America Forward and other conservative groups are demanding the college rescind its invitation to Ayers.

They have also launched a campaign asking people to call and e-mail the Catholic college in Moraga to register their objections.

"For Saint Mary's College to pay an unrepentant domestic terrorist, who has been asked to speak about 'freedom,' demonstrates poor judgment and is diametrically opposed to Saint Mary's core beliefs," said Jim Minder, of the Lafayette Flag Brigade.

If Ayers is permitted to speak, Minder and others vow to protest outside the Soda Center on campus where the free lecture is scheduled to take place.

A Saint Mary's spokesman called it highly unlikely the college will cancel Ayers' appearance and said it would accommodate peaceful protesters.

Ayers, an author and University of Illinois education professor thrust into the limelight when he was linked to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, has been invited to speak about education reform, said Saint Mary's President Ron Gallagher.

Although Gallagher said he strongly disagrees with many of Ayers' past actions, the college has a "responsibility to defend the rights of those with controversial viewpoints to


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speak.

 

"To live up to our great tradition, we must remain an academic community where the free and open discussion of ideas, even those with which we strongly disagree, is possible."

Ayers is the fourth speaker in the college's annual January term lecture series. The college does not disclose what it pays its speakers, and as a private school, it is not required to do so.

The theme for this year's series is "Against the Grain." Other speakers included the founder of the Critical Mass bicycle protest in San Francisco, a man who pursues a sustainable green lifestyle and a self-described happy fat woman.

Ayers advocates for teachers to incorporate social justice lessons into the classroom and has written numerous books and articles on the subject.

The question of Ayers' acceptability as a lecturer, however, is a complex one, as controversy continues to surround him.

Ayers was denied entry in early January to Canada, where he was scheduled to speak at the University of Toronto. In November, the University of Nebraska cited security concerns and rescinded Ayers' invitation.

Yet, such cancellations are rare. Ayers speaks on dozens of campuses every year.

Nor is Ayers the only speaker to draw ire on campuses from groups who dispute the validity of such presentations as a teaching tool.

College professors vigorously defend academic freedom as critical to the educational process.

"In order to arrive at the truth, we must have a robust exchange of ideas," said Greg Scholtz, director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance at the American Association of University Professors.

Invitations made to outside speakers do not imply approval or endorsement of the speaker's views, and the notion that college students require protection from radical ideas is no longer commonplace on most campuses, Scholtz said.

For Ayers' numerous critics, however, it is a question of discernment rather than free speech.

"I am not trying to silence anyone," said Rochelle Bird, a former Moraga councilwoman and Saint Mary's College graduate. She said she will bring her family to the lecture and occupy seats that might otherwise be filled with impressionable students.

"Mr. Ayers uses social justice as code for socialism," Bird said. "He wants to deconstruct America and reconstruct it in his socialist view. He is absolutely entitled to think that... but the college should not give him a platform to indoctrinate students."

Ideology aside, Ayers has an indisputably violent past.

He was a founder of Weather Underground, a militant anti-war group that bombed public buildings in the 1970s, including a Pentagon bathroom and New York City police headquarters.

Ayers and others in the group went underground for a decade after a bomb the group was making mistakenly detonated in a Greenwich Village apartment and killed three of its members.

He and his fellow Underground leader, Bernardine Dohrn, were indicted in 1970, but a judge threw out the case because of illegal FBI wiretaps and searches.

In books and interviews, Ayers has repeatedly characterized his actions as crossing the "lines of legality, of propriety and perhaps even of common sense."

But he has also rejected the label of terrorist and defends the Weather Underground as a necessary reaction to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He has said he wished he could have done more to end the war but denies that he was referring to bombings.

"We did carry out symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism, and the attacks on property, never on people, were meant to respect human life and convey outrage and determination to end the Vietnam War," Ayers wrote in a Dec. 6 New York Times piece.

"That is absolutely not the truth," countered Larry Grathwohl, of Cincinnati, who was recruited by the FBI in 1969 to infiltrate the Weather Underground. "He is trying to justify what he did. I heard Billy tell people to use fence staples in the bombs because it would inflict the most damage on people. And even without shrapnel, putting a bomb in a building is a terrorist act."

For others, Ayers has achieved redemption through his work of the past three decades.

He earned a doctorate in education at Columbia University in 1987, and he went on to become an author and professor of education at the University of Illinois.

Chicago named him its 1997 citizen of the year, a city where he served on several committees with Barack Obama.

And he was recently elected vice president of curriculum studies for the 25,000-member American Educational Research Association. He is among the leaders of the social justice in education movement.

But even here, Ayers has strong critics.

"In my view, he is more dangerous now as an educator of future teachers than he was planting a few puny bombs in the 1970s," said Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York. "He teaches that it's not only OK to indoctrinate students but that teachers in all grades and subject areas have a responsibility to teach children to liberate themselves from capitalist, imperial oppression."

Reach Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com or www.ibabuzz.com/politics/.

FAST FACTS
Saint Mary's College
lecture series
  • What: Bill Ayers, radical activist in the 1960s and currently an author and professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, will speak on "Trudging Toward Freedom: Building a Movement/Living Our Lives for Peace and Justice"
  • Cost: Free
  • When: 6:00 pm, Wednesday
  • Where: Soda Center,
    Saint Mary's College, Moraga
  • Details:
    www.stmarys-ca.edu