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Ayers draws crowd at University of Wyoming appearance, few protesters and no heckling

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — In the end, the former 1960s radical delivered a professional speech that drew more than a thousand listeners and very few protesters.

Security was tight Wednesday as William Ayers spoke on education concerns at the University of Wyoming after a federal judge forced the school to host him.

UW President Tom Buchanan had decided not to allow the current University of Illinois-Chicago professor to speak on campus over concern that veiled threats the university had received from people opposed to Ayers would result in violence.

But the event, which included bag and coat searches and bomb-sniffing dogs, was held without any incidents at a campus gym that normally hosts volleyball and wrestling matches.

Ayers co-founded the Weather Underground, an anti-war group from the Vietnam Era that claimed to be responsible for a series of bombings, including nonfatal explosions at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.

Ten protesters gathered in a snow storm outside where Ayers spoke, carrying American flags and denouncing Ayers for his anti-war activities in the Vietnam era.

Chesney Rathbun, a UW senior from Hulett, Wyo., held a sign reading "Millions of veterans died for this?!?" The sign had pictures of the Pentagon and what appeared to be a mug shot of Ayers. Rathbun said he agreed with Ayers' right to speak, but opposed Ayers' viewpoints.

"Terrorism is not welcome here," Rathbun said. "Millions of veterans died for the freedoms that our beautiful country affords them, and he's taking advantage of (those freedoms)."

Ayers briefly commented about his First Amendment fight with the university at the start of his 50-minute address, but the bulk of his talk focused on his expertise in education issues and how the best education opportunities should be available to rich and poor alike.

The hourlong question session that followed also mainly dealt with education issues, and people began to trickle out of the gym. But to a few questions on his Weather Underground days, Ayers acknowledged that some of its actions were despicable and set a bad example. But he stressed that that was in the context of thousands of people being killed each week in Vietnam.

The reaction to his appearance contrasted with a visit by former Vice President Dick Cheney in September after donating $3.2 million to help build an international center on campus.

Cheney was welcomed by the college administration with open arms, but heckled during his remarks by about 100 protesters in a crowd of about 500.

When Ayers spoke, he had no interruptions from about a dozen protesters among the roughly 1,100 people who showed up.

Ayers' visit to Wyoming culminated a monthlong fight over whether he should be allowed to speak at the state's only four-year public university.

The prospect of Ayers' visit provoked a tide of angry reaction from some critics in Wyoming, a conservative-leaning state that has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since 1968.

Ayers initially was invited to the Wyoming campus by the UW Social Justice Research Center, but the privately endowed organization canceled the invitation because of hundreds of critical phone calls and e-mails.

Student Meg Lanker then invited Ayers to speak on campus, but Buchanan refused to rent out space for the event, citing safety concerns.

Lanker and Ayers sued the university, saying it violated their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. They suggested the university was more concerned about losing donors than safety.

"A donor who gives to the University of Wyoming - just as a donor who gives to the University of Illinois or the University of Chicago or Harvard or Yale or the University of California - gives to the idea of the university," Ayers said Wednesday. "That donor doesn't get to say 'By the way, you have to hire this professor and this is the book the professor has to teach out of.' What kind of university would that be?"

Ayers' past became a political issue during the 2008 presidential campaign because President Barack Obama had served with Ayers on the board of a Chicago charity. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists."

Obama has condemned Ayers' radical activities, and there's no evidence they were ever close friends or that Ayers advised Obama on policy.

Other universities have canceled Ayers speeches recently, including the University of Nebraska and Boston College.

"In those two instances the students didn't decide to push it, and in this instance a student decided to push it, and I joined that effort," Ayers said.