WY forum speakers: Public colleges must be neutral in allowing controversial figures on campus

Public colleges must be neutral in allowing controversial speakers and their ideas on campus and must work harder to educate citizens about the roles of colleges in presenting varying ideas, speakers at a free speech forum said Monday.

The University of Wyoming organized the forum, which featured four academics from across the country, in the wake of recent campus visits by former Vice President Dick Cheney and former 1960s radical Bill Ayers.

A group of people opposed to Cheney's conservative views attempted to interrupt his speech last fall by shouting him down. In April, the university tried to stop Ayers from speaking when many people objected to his radical past and threatened to withhold contributions to the university.

Cheney completed his speech despite the hecklers, and Ayers was allowed on campus by order of a federal judge.

UW President Tom Buchanan said the forum allowed students, faculty, staff and administrators to "listen to very smart, knowledgeable people talk about a topic that we all have come to understand in different ways."

"There's much to be learned from the experiences that we've had here in the last six months, and I think this is trying to make sure that we come out of this process a little smarter, a little more sophisticated, with a little bit better understanding, and hopefully a little bit more civility and tolerance," Buchanan said.

Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville, Va., said UW has faced an "exceptional" and "most unusual" series of events involving free speech on campus.

O'Neil said public universities need to present a balance of views.

Kenneth Lasson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said there are no easy answers to many of the complex issues of security, codes of conduct and public discourse that arise with controversial speakers on college campuses.

Losing contributions is a risk colleges must take with controversial speakers, Lasson said.

But he said colleges should have the ability to suspend or expel students who attempt to interrupt authorized speakers on campus.

Joan DelFattore, professor of English and legal studies at the University of Delaware, said universities must be forums for ideas without endorsing specific ideas of speakers.

Philippa Strum, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a professor emerita at City University of New York, said public universities need to interact with citizens outside campus to explain "what a university is all about" when it comes to presenting different viewpoints.