Many parents and community members who believe that Riverside Brookfield High School should never have invited Bill Ayers to speak on campus proclaimed a small victory a few weeks ago when they organized an appearance by talk radio personality Michael Gallagher.
In the late 1960s Ayers co-founded a domestic terrorist organization called the Weather Underground. The group protested the Vietnam War by staging riots and detonating bombs in public buildings.
A native of Glen Ellyn, Ayers now serves on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Chicago. His relationship with President Obama came under scrutiny last year during the campaign.
Obama and Ayers got to know each other when they both lived in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood and served together on the board for the Annenberg Challenge. Ayers hosted a fundraiser in his home for Obama when he began his political career in 1996 by running for the Illinois Senate.
The nature of their continued relationship has been the subject of much conjecture. Perhaps only those who are close to the two men know for sure how close they are to each other.
For at least several years Ayers has been a popular public speaker. He lectures on his ideas regarding education as well as his experiences in the Weather Underground.
Jan Goldberg, who teaches government and current events at RBHS, said her senior students asked her last year if she would invite Ayers to campus to give a talk. Interested in why he had become so newsworthy during the campaign, the students wanted to learn more about what he did during the 1960s and ’70s.
Goldberg decided to invite him to an after-school meeting the school’s Forum Club, but she said this event would be held after the election. News of the February event become more widespread a few days before it was held, and school administrators finally decided to allow parents, community members and reporters to attend.
I understand why so many people are vehemently opposed to Ayers being invited to speak about his controversial past. In talking about his group’s activities, Ayers has said that the violence the Weather Underground committed was nothing compared to the violence done for years by the U.S. government in Vietnam. Ayers believes the government was an instrument of gross injustice in those days, and this obviously offends many others.
So the event with Michael Gallagher was arranged as a way to balance the scales, so to speak. At the time that Ayers visited, Goldberg said she wanted to invite someone with a different political perspective to campus to provide an alternative viewpoint.
Ayers would not be my first choice as a speaker. If students wanted information about that era, I would get people in the government and media who were involved in these events to provide some context of what occurred.
But the school is free to invite anyone it wants. People’s primary objection is that Ayers never expressed any remorse for the violence his group committed or the people hurt as a consequence.
I’ve heard other stories. Goldberg told me earlier this year that Ayers clearly disavowed the use of violence as a method of political protest. And I’ve read other stories that made similar claims, including reports that he expressed regrets over the fact that people were hurt during the acts in which members of his group engaged.
This doesn’t satisfy many people, and I understand this. Ayers has not backed away from his views of the government’s actions in the Vietnam War, and people continue to take a dim view of his beliefs.
The trick is that Ayers’ ideas, as controversial as they are, fall within the protection of the First Amendment. Just as people may praise the government for what they believe it represents, Ayers may loathe it for what he believes it did.
Ayers’ critics have a hard time making the case of his being unrepentant about his criminal activities. Numerous articles have reported exactly the opposite. I don’t know what’s truly in his heart, but there is no doubt that he has at least publicly disavowed the use of violence.
What continues to irk them is Ayers’ views on the government during the war. But as I said, the same Constitution that protects the patriotic sentiments so many people feel about this nation guarantees Ayers the right to think poorly of the government and speak his mind. This doesn’t mean any school or group must invite him to speak, but they are within their rights to do so if they choose.
Now that Ayers’ views have been cleansed from the RBHS mindset with the visit by Gallagher, I hope people are ready to put the issue to rest. It’s definitely a lesson in how the First Amendment protects all us equally, messy though this is from time to time.