What do these images have in common? Read on!

If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise, we do not believe in it at all.—Noam Chomsky

Last week’s debacle at the University of Massachusetts over a planned speech by 60s activist/terrorist Ray Luc Levasseur should be studied by future students as an exercise in which idiocy, demagoguery, and hypocrisy collided with the messy force of a ripe November pumpkin dropped from the 26-story UMass library.

Ray Luc Levasseur, the offspring of a Maine farm family, was radicalized by his experience as a soldier in Vietnam, his observations of the civil rights movement, and the antiwar movement. From 1976 to 1984, he was involved with the United Freedom Front (UFF), a motley group whose members styled themselves revolutionaries. They committed at least 19 bombings of courthouses, corporations, and military installations, and they pulled off ten bank heists (absconding with about $900,000) in Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, New York, and Virginia.

Although UFF targets included multinational giants such as IBM, Union Carbide, and Motorola—companies whose losses engender little sympathy—it was hardly a collection of gallant Robin Hoods. A 1976 bombing of the Suffolk County Courthouse left twenty-two people injured, and a shootout in New Jersey killed patrolman Philip Lamonaco. Levasseur went underground for many years before he was arrested in Ohio and was put on trial for sedition. He defended himself in the longest and most expensive trial in Massachusetts history and was acquitted of what in retrospect was a patently ridiculous charge in the first place. (The UFF was indeed violent, but to see them as a threat to overthrow the United States is risible.) Levasseur was, however, convicted for his role in a 1989 anti-apartheid bombing. He spent eighteen years in federal prison before his 2004 parole back to his native Maine.

Here’s where the dummies took over. Levasseur was invited to speak at UMass as part of an ongoing series on social change. As posters went up, the most common reaction was: “Who the hell is Ray Luc Levasseur?” (I too had forgotten him. I vaguely recalled a few of the bombings, but before the controversy I couldn’t have told you which were done by the UFF and which were committed by other radical groups such as the Weather Underground.) Like so many campus events, on its own the Levasseur talk would have drawn a few dozen people—mostly professors, grad students, and three undergrads seeking “extra credit.”

One of the things dummies never get is that any publicity is good, and negative publicity ensures massive interest in whatever is being banned. Want Levasseur to go away? Shut up! Enter two Massachusetts demagogues—UMass President Jack Wilson and desperate Governor Deval Patrick (who stands out in a crowded field of contenders as one of the most inept politicians in recent MA history). Bowing to pressure from police unions and conservative groups, both worked to withdraw Levasseur’s invitation to UMass.

Let the fun begin! Numerous UMass professors and campus groups rightly viewed this as an assault on freedom of speech. They re-invited Levasseur to speak at a non-official forum. Not to be outdone, cops and others pressured Levasseur’s parole board, which denied permission to leave Maine. So the event took place without his presence. Instead of several dozen attendees, several hundred showed up. And so did lots of anti-Lavasseur protestors, including New Jersey state troopers with Officer Lamonaco’s widow in tow.

I’m sorry for her loss and in no way condone what happened, but she and the cops were demagogues of the very worst order. Ray Luc Levasseur did not kill Lamonaco; he was nowhere near the scene. Two other UFF members, Thomas Manning and Richard Williams, were convicted of the shooting. Manning remains in jail and continues to claim he shot in self-defense. (Recall the 1969 ritual murders of Black Panther leaders Mark Clark and Fred Hampton by Chicago police, and you’ll realize there was plenty of craziness on all sides back in those days.) Whatever one thinks of Levasseur, to hold him culpable for Lamonaco’s death is unfair to the point of libel.

Wilson’s bumbling served only to bring UMass into disrepute. Levasseur was languishing in obscurity but—courtesy of the Wilson-induced controversy--a Google search of his name now generates 583,000 hits, more than half of which reference UMass. I guess this is what happens when you put a Boston hack in charge of a system whose flagship is two and a half hours away. He might want come to visit it every now and again. If he did, he might find that the Levasseur debacle is symptomatic of bigger problems that go beyond simplistic liberal/conservative divides. It is free speech itself that is jeopardy on college campuses.

Let us contrast L’affaire Levasseur with what happened at Columbia in 2006 and 2007. In 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at Columbia, only to have university President Leo Bollinger pull the invitation. At the time, Bollinger argued that Ahmadinejad was a vicious anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier, and an active supporter of terrorism. Never mind that all of Bollinger’s charges are true, in the name of free speech a chastened Bollinger allowed Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia in 2007.

It makes one wonder if the UMass hue and cry would have been so great if Levasseur was a mere anti-Semite. Probably not; and here is where the political left gets hoisted on its own hypocritical petard. UMass is an anti-Israel/pro-Palestine hotbed. In March of 2009, a Student Alliance for Israel rally was disrupted by leftist groups such as the Pioneer Valley Coalition for Palestine (PVCP), the International Socialist Organization, and the Campus Anti-War Network. Just days after the Levasseur-less talk, a PVCP poster in the campus center called upon Israel to negotiate with Hamas. What am I missing here? A former terrorist who did his time can’t speak at UMass, but a bunch of UMass lefties thinks it has the right to demand that Israel negotiate with active terrorists? Good grief!

The Levasseur embarrassment at UMass suggests several things. First of all, if you want something to go away, don’t give it free publicity. Second, both UMass and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts lack intelligent leadership. Third, and most importantly, free speech is either the domain of all or the domain of none. It cannot be parsed into liberal and conservative, right and wrong, or acceptable and unacceptable. But don’t take my word for it; listen to the words of another former terrorist who once oversaw the killing of thousands: “If freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” The terrorist’s name? George Washington.


susan said...

This did not make the papers-thanks for the info.
Very troubling, indeed.

susan said...

Papers in NYS, I mean