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A New Climate of Fear?

"It has all the hallmarks of suppression of speech: incitement of fear, intimidation of well-meaning folks, mob rule." So said Bill Ayers in response to the cancellation of a scheduled talk he was to give to high school students, whose parents would have been required to sign permission slips for them to attend, in Naperville, Ill. 

Ayers, author of Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Antiwar Activist, is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His relationship with Barack Obama became a source of controversy during the Presidential campaign in what Ayers described as a “dishonest narrative.” 

An event at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, scheduled for April 8 and tied to his new book from Third World Press, Race Course, was also cancelled. The bookshop cited security concerns. Similarly, an event at Brandeis University has been postponed due to the cost of security.

And a Boston College engagement at which Ayers was to speak about education reform was first cancelled by the college, then moved off campus, and briefly reworked into an event by satellite before that, too, was blocked by the BC officials. A local radio personality incited the protests that prompted the College to cancel the event. The student group that had invited Ayers to campus instead sponsored a discussion of freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus which drew 300 students, staff and faculty members. 

This is not the first time venues hosting speaking engagements featuring Ayers have come under fire. Officials at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln cancelled a lecture last fall, citing safety concerns. Countless events, however, have gone on in spite of attempts to suppress Ayers' speech. In October of 2001, when the late A. David Schwartz of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops stood firm in the face of calls and letters urging him to cancel an event tied to the original release of Fugitive Days, he offered this eloquent defense to his critics: 

"I myself grew up in Wisconsin during the McCarthy era and witnessed firsthand the attack on civil liberties and civic life that crippled America at that time. My father was accused of running a Communist bookshop by many people just because he thought it important to stock and promote books which were unpopular in the political climate of the time. I also was engaged in the movement against the Vietnam War and had some opportunities to view the Weathermen in action. I decided that I was politically and intellectually opposed to their positions on most matters.

Now to the specific issue of whether or not Bill Ayers should be allowed to be one of the 26 authors who will visit our shops in October. It seems to me this is what America is about: listening to many freely expressed viewpoints so we can decide for ourselves the truth. America's brilliance and enormous distinction from other democracies is that it truly believes in the democratic process. Letting Bill Ayers speak is a part of that process. I hope customers who disagree with Bill Ayers and his views will attend this book reading so you can question him about this ideas. That's another part of the process."

(Incidentally and on a sad note, Schwartz Bookshops very recently closed its doors for good after 82 years. Two of the chain's four locations will reopen soon under new names, and we wish the new owners all the best.)

Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press, offers these thoughts on the cancellations:

"Like most of our colleagues in the publishing and media communities, we deplore a climate in which schools, universities and bookstores are made fearful of having any author--or indeed any one--speak in their venues.  As the management of Anderson's Bookshop put it:

'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. This week freedom of speech was threatened.'

For all of us involved in the work of publishing ideas, the suppression of speech is a blow to democracy. It impoverishes us all to live in a climate where ideas are suppressed rather than discussed and debated, where anger overtakes discourse.  We remain hopeful that the fear-mongering that led to these cancellations can be staunched by the many individuals and organizations dedicated to protecting the free speech rights so integral to our national health."