Scheduled, then canceled
The talk was originally scheduled by the special collections of the university library, as a 20-year retrospective on “The Great Sedition Trial” – the longest running, most expensive trial ever held in this part of the country. Ray Luc Levasseur was scheduled to be the main speaker; Levasseur is on parole, living in Maine, and his parole officer approved his traveling to give the talk. Although he was to be paid for the talk – by an outside group – he had stated his intention to give the stipend to a locally-based charity. I paid little attention to the original talk schedule, noting it as mildly interesting, but not a priority to attend.
The librarian who scheduled the talk did so simply because the trial was a big event in this part of the country, and it seemed worthwhile looking back on it as one of several talks in a series on social change and its consequences. No one anticipated the torrent of criticism that was unleashed, mostly directed not at Levasseur’s own actions, but rather at the fact that one member of the same political group, when stopped for a traffic violation, shot and killed a New Jersey state trooper, and another member shot at two Massachusetts police. Levasseur himself was never charged, much less convicted, of shooting at police.
Why did the librarian cancel the originally scheduled talk? At some point the talk became a major issue to police groups, who mobilized tremendous pressure to have the talk canceled. At first I assumed that the chancellor must have pressured the library to cancel, with the chancellor himself responding to pressure from the governor. That isn’t what happened: The librarian involved felt that the talk would no longer serve the purpose originally intended, as a forum about the trial and the issues it raised, and that the event would be used to damage the university.
Even more important, the librarian was subjected to a huge quantity of hate mail, which both took up much of his time and was personally upsetting. Although I didn’t listen to his phone messages, I did listen to some of the phone messages received by Sara Lennox, the person publicly identified as leading the drive to re-schedule the talk. Here’s a sample, one of dozens of similar messages: “You f___ing c___, I hope you get lost under a bus on the way to the talk, you douche bag; that would save us some trouble.” (I’m told a web site showed talk sponsors being popped and killed.) Sara’s voice mail filled up with such messages, making it impossible for others to get through, and a challenge for her to listen to messages looking for the few real ones from students or colleagues.
I can easily see why a librarian listening to dozens (hundreds?) of such messages would be worried, both for him/herself and for others. Immediately after listening to a few of these calls, I was quoted as saying that when “a talk gets canceled because of outside pressure, that is itself a form of terrorism.” The New York Times Ethicist says that in saying this I got “the process of free speech exactly wrong,” that such pressure by opposing forces is itself a fine example of free speech. Of course, he hadn’t bothered to learn the character of the pressure. I suspect if he had talked to the librarian, the Ethicist would not have written “In this case, there was a very public give and take. And a kind of line for what is legitimate commentary in our republic was once again established. All good.” (Jack Hitt, NY Times, November 17, 2009)
When police groups attacked the talk, and the governor weighed in, and the president of the university condemned it, many of us on the faculty felt that if outside political pressure led to the cancellation of talks by unpopular speakers, or those with unpopular viewpoints, both academic freedom and free speech would be endangered.
Our concern was not because we agreed with the views, much less the actions, of Ray Luc Levasseur. (I teach a course on radical movements; in that course a fundamental lesson is that radical change requires a mass movement, and secretive groups promoting violence undercut the ability to build such mass movements.) But a great many people felt that if the university buckled to outside pressure, if a down-in-the-polls governor running for re-election, and police groups, could lead to a talk being canceled, then the university was losing its ability to consider unpopular positions and challenge conventional thinking. We didn’t want our future speakers to be run past a review committee of politicians and police. People who had no interest in the original talk (myself included), suddenly took a major interest in seeing to it that the talk be re-scheduled.
On this basis, and explicitly not as an endorsement of Ray Luc Levasseur, his views, or his actions, in 48 hours a number of academic departments signed up to see to it that the talk be re-scheduled, and Ray Luc Levasseur be offered a new chance to talk on the same topic, the trial at which he was the chief defendant. Active debates about the meaning of free speech took place all over campus, both in groups that signed on as co-sponsors of the re-scheduled event, and in groups that did not (or that could not decide within the time-frame involved).
The press release that announced the re-scheduled event was explicit on this point, and the language of the press release was important to many of the faculty and departments who decided to support the re-scheduling:
Departments have added their support to this event in the name of protecting the cherished American values of freedom of speech and academic freedom, which they believed to be threatened by the decision to cancel the event under pressure from a variety of outside organizations. Sponsors’ support for this event should in no way be construed as an endorsement of Levasseur, his political beliefs, or any of his past activities.
The event itself
The event itself did not involve the tension-filled unproductive chaos that many had predicted; it was instead an example of what universities should be about. Although Ray Levasseur was invited by university groups, and although his parole officer had earlier approved his traveling to Massachusetts to give the talk, the parole board – in response to police pressure – canceled his permission to appear, so he was not present. (Free speech was thus denied, a tragedy – but the denial was not by the university; an important point to the sponsors of the re-scheduled event.) Something like 200 demonstrators nonetheless picketed the event, mostly police, including the widow and children of the slain New Jersey state trooper. About 250 attended the event – more would have done so, but the room had reached its seating capacity and the police (quite reasonably) did not want anyone standing in the aisles in case of a need to evacuate the room. A large majority of the audience members were students, most of whom came with an open mind interested in learning.
The panel for “The Great Sedition Trial: Twenty Years After” included four lawyers, one defendant (Pat Levasseur, ex-wife of Ray), and two jurors. Panelists spoke for a bit under an hour, and questions ran for another 45 minutes.
One of the jurors had driven 12 hours to attend the event: during the ten months of the trial she became very impressed with Ray Levasseur, has since corresponded with him, and said at the talk that he is so smart, he should be a professor at a local college somewhere. (Strange things happen when ordinary people spend months listening to evidence, and hearing from defendants; it’s also worth noting that at the trial none of the defendants were convicted of anything – most of the verdicts were flat-out “not guilty”, other verdicts led to a hung jury with all charges dismissed soon thereafter.)
One of the attorneys, Liz Fink, argued that it was dubious
to call Ray Levasseur and the other defendants terrorists. (If Levasseur is a terrorist, is Nelson Mandela? He was convicted of sedition, and the ANC sponsored bombings. Is Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff, who promoted an illegal war that led to thousands of deaths? Yet both Card and Mandela received honorary degrees from the university.) Although members of Levasseur’s group did bomb buildings, they always issued a warning and tried to be sure no one was hurt. The only bombing in which people were hurt was their first bombing, the Suffolk County Courthouse. The bombers issued a warning, and all the judges were evacuated from the building, but other people weren’t informed of the threat.
The final question for the night asked about the use of violence as a strategy. Liz Fink said (approximately):
I’ve spent my life defending people accused of violence, some of whom did commit violent acts. Trust me: violence does not work. What works is the constitution, is free speech. If you asked Ray Levasseur – and it’s too bad he can’t be here – he’d tell you he’s had more impact by his writing and speaking since his release than he ever had through any illegal underground actions.
That’s probably not the message the police groups and the governor expected the forum to deliver, but it’s one more example of why free speech is worth supporting, even if the speaker is a convicted “terrorist.”