Did Naperville Violate Free Speech When It Canceled a Bill Ayers Speaking Engagement?

Hero_living_in(1) Naperville, Illinois, located 28 miles west of Chicago, is home to more than 145,000 people. It is located south of Wheaton, and thus located near to where I live. The city’s Web site describes Illinois' fifth largest city, which was once a rather small town when I came here in the 1960s, this way:

Naperville consistently ranks as a top community in the nation to live, raise children and retire. The city is home to acclaimed schools, what the city calls the best public library system in the country, an array of healthcare options and an exceptionally low crime rate. With ready access to a variety of transportation, housing and employment options, this booming suburb attracts thousands of new residents each year, making it one of the fastest growing communities in the United States. Naperville’s diversified employer base features high technology firms, retailers and factories, as well as small and home-based businesses. Residents also enjoy world-class parks, diverse worship options and an active civic community.

Naperville has been in the news recently because of a scheduled visit by former (unrepentant) terrorist Bill Ayers of Chicago. Ayers, the Weatherman bomb thrower turned college professor was, as you will recall, a figure in the recent presidential campaign since some tried to show that his connection to then Senator Obama was too close for American’s comfort.

Well, Ayers was due to speak at Naperville North High School. He was also going to sign books at Anderson’s Book Store, a well-known independent book store in downtown Naperville. But the school superintendent canceled the Ayers visit, citing hundreds of e-mails from constituents protesting Bill Ayers’ appearance. Anderson’s followed suit, but for reasons that it says were related to “hostile” responses and thus they “feared” for the safety of their employees. Andersons has now said it feels “free speech” was denied. Others agree and attack the school superintendent’s decision on the same grounds.

Did a vocal minority hold the town of Naperville hostage? No, of course not. Bill Ayers says the reasons for the cancellation were “outrageous.” That might be but his behavior and his comments since are outrageous to many, if not most, Americans. Is this, as Ayers’ stated, “a suppression of speech?” Not in your wildest dreams. Let me explain.

Canceled speaking engagements are a form of free speech. The school invited him and the school can change its mind. The community of Naperville clearly does not support the idea of extending a platform to someone whose use of radical violence is in question. Should we allow Arab terrorists to speak in public schools? Should we invite the far right wing-nuts like the late Timothy McVeigh to speak in our public schools? What about neo-Nazis?

I believe Ayers, and those who defend him, should realize that for every action there are consequences. This is a simple way of saying: “You reap what you sow.” Ayers is reaping a loss of opportunity now precisely because of the foolishness of his anti-American actions years ago and the failure to acknowledge them in the present.

Not all ideas are of equal value, especially in a society that has public schools that must answer to the public. Dialog is good but high schools are not the platform that the public should grant to Bill Ayers.

Home Bill Ayers has the right to speak his mind, to write his books, etc. He is granted this right by the Constitution. But no school is obliged to invite him to speak, especially when that school is funded by the taxpayers of the city of Naperville. Naperville North High School has had speakers in the past from the left and the right. It has clearly not been a place removed from the rigorous debates of modern American life and politics.

The grave misunderstanding in this protest against the school superintendent for canceling the speech of William Ayers is the idea that free speech guarantees the freedom to say anything at anytime or anyplace. It does not. The Constitution grants freedom from governmental censorship, not absolute freedom of speech. This whole debate proves just how much the popular media has misinformed us about the real “meaning” of free speech. Most of these people, on the left and even (some) on the right, must have missed class one day in their civics course, if they ever took a course at all.