Nebraska should prosecute those who threatened violence over Ayers

After threats of violence, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln canceled William Ayers' speech at an educator's conference last month. The university cited security concerns as the reason.

After threats of violence, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln canceled William Ayers speech at an educator's conference last month. The university cited security concerns as the reason.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln should seek prosecution of those who threatened violence over a schedule visit by former 1960’s radical William Ayers.

Not to do so sends a message that threats of violent and a mob mentality are successful ways to abridge the Constitutional rights of U.S. citizens and academic freedom institutions cherished by a majority of Americans and Nebraskans.

Last month, the university cancelled William Ayers‘ speech at an educator’s conference, scheduled for this month. The university cited security concerns as the reason.

Ayers is nationally recognized as a distinguished professor of education and is a self-described radical from the Vietnam War era.

“The university’s threat assessment group monitored e-mails and other information UNL received regarding Ayers’ scheduled Nov. 15 visit, and identified safety concerns which resulted in the university canceling the event,” read a four-paragraph statement issued by UNL.

A November 2nd article by reporter Melissa Lee in the Lincoln Journal Star revealed the timeline of events leading to the Ayers cancelation.

Lee wrote:

“Aware of the sensitivity of the situation, NU officials sometimes opted for phone calls over e-mails to discuss their plans, the e-mails indicate. And the university, citing state law that exempts state senators from open-records law, refused to release a handful of e-mail exchanges between Milliken and Sen. Phil Erdman of Bayard.

Erdman couldn’t be reached for an interview.

Still, a review of e-mails from Oct. 16 and 17 sheds light on the swift process by which Ayers was disinvited.

Thursday, Oct. 16

2:18 p.m.: Chancellor Harvey Perlman, in China at the time, receives an e-mail telling him to “rot in hell” for the Ayers invitation. It’s one of many messages he and other NU employees would receive showing emotions are running high — perhaps dangerously so.

2:22 p.m.: UNL spokeswoman Kelly Bartling tells colleagues that UNL Police Chief Owen Yardley, a member of the campus’ threat assessment team, wants to monitor calls and e-mails. The team ultimately pores over about 1,000 such messages.

5:17 p.m.: College of Journalism and Mass Communications Dean Will Norton writes NU President J.B. Milliken: “I am told this will be a big problem for the university in the Unicameral. I believe in freedom of expression with all my heart, and I also believe in being careful about that freedom when there are folk who will be incensed by that freedom.

“I am not sure what should be done.”

In an interview, Norton said although no senator contacted him directly, he’d picked up rumors lawmakers would cut NU’s budget if Ayers came to Lincoln. He’d also heard rumors donors would cut off support.

“Basically what you had was a lot of anger,” Norton said.

Milliken said while criticism from politicians and donors was of concern, it wasn’t the reason Perlman rescinded the invitation.

In fact, much of the criticism, including harsh condemnations from Gov. Dave Heineman, Attorney General Jon Bruning and others, came on the afternoon of Oct. 17 — after Ayers had been disinvited.

“I wasn’t really thinking about whether this could be a problem for the university in the Unicameral,” Milliken said Wednesday.

5:51 p.m.: Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences, writes to a colleague that “safety is a concern.”

By that time, recalled Regents Chairman Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons, “You could just feel the pressure mounting.”

8:09 p.m.: Robb Crouch, director of public relations at the NU Foundation, alerts senior staff members at UNL that alumni are displeased.

“We’ve never before received this many online messages from individuals on one issue. Most are also threatening to discontinue their giving to the university.”

8:33 p.m.: Perlman e-mails Milliken, saying he’ll call in an hour.

He indicates support for Kostelnik and for academic freedom.

“Obviously I can’t judge the tenor in Lincoln but I would not be inclined to disinvite. (Ayers) is not speaking on politics. He is as far as I know a recognized expert in his field. … The only reason I can think of to cancel is that there is an angry public reaction and that is a difficult argument for me or you to defend.”

Perlman reached Milliken by phone about 10 p.m., the president said. Perlman relayed that safety concerns were building.

The two discussed their options, Milliken said, including proceeding with the Ayers speech, canceling it for security reasons and having Milliken step in and cancel it.

They eliminated the last option immediately, Milliken said, agreeing it isn’t a university president’s job to silence faculty-chosen speakers.

The conversation ended without a final verdict, he said.

10:23 p.m.: Perlman e-mails Milliken and Susan Poser, associate to the chancellor, to say Kostelnik “has concluded that she should alert Ayers that we have significant security concerns.”

Friday, Oct. 17

2:53 a.m.: Perlman writes to Poser, “I am furious at all of this. … Thanks for holding the fort during the assault.”

Safety concerns soon deepen.

3:09 a.m.: Mario Scalora, an associate psychology professor and nationally recognized threat assessment expert, sends Perlman an e-mail with the subject head, “Remember when I promised to let you know when to worry …”

Scalora warns if the Ayers speech goes on, UNL will have to change the venue and significantly beef up security.

“Bottom line, this will be one of the highest-security ‘celebrations’ this campus has planned.”

4:40 a.m.: Kostelnik tells Poser she’ll call Ayers in the morning to alert him to the safety issues.

“The e-mails are bad, but the blogs are much worse — some mentions of violence and intent to disrupt the conference.”

Indeed, according to a memo prepared by Scalora, bloggers made multiple references to staging protests during the event and harming or even killing Ayers.

7:01 a.m.: Kostelnik writes Ayers, “Some troubling things have been happening here on campus and in our state about which I would like you to be aware. I would appreciate an opportunity to talk with you about this and will be calling you this morning to do so. … It will be good to talk.”

Ayers responds: “Don’t worry too much, it’s almost all empty talk, and will pass quickly. Best, Bill.”

11:41 a.m.: Kostelnik writes back to Ayers, this time with a firm decision.

“Although I believe we could withstand the outcry in time, it has come to my attention that safety concerns are mounting. Those concerns involve your own safety and the safety of our students. Our police department rates the risks of disturbance and potential violence as quite high.

“While I am willing to fight for academic freedom, I cannot risk either your well being or that of any participants at our conference. Therefore, I am asking that we agree that you not come to Nebraska in November as originally planned due to these safety issues …

“I regret this situation.”

Police aren’t yet pursuing charges against any individual who made threats against Ayers, Chief Yardley said, but they’ll continue to monitor threats until the Nov. 15 conference and will take action if necessary.”

“Will take action if necessary?” Documents indicate that threats of violence, should Ayers speak at UNL, were made by some in e-mails and blogs.

Most people wouldn’t condone William Ayers’ radical activities of the past. They threatened the democratic principals this country was founded on.  Isn’t it ironic that those who threatened violence last month to keep Ayers from speaking at UNL used some of the same radical ploys from Ayers past?

It’s quite a contradiction. It reminds of the lyrics from the 1967 Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth”

“There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”

For more background, check out these links:

William Ayers speech canceled by University of Nebraska-Lincoln

UNL chancellor speaks out on William Ayers cancellation

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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