Embattled Levasseur barred by U.S. Parole Commission from traveling to Massachusetts, ex-wife to speak in his place Thursday
After a dizzying back-and-forth of controversy, one thing appears to have finally been decided in the heated debate surrounding Ray Luc Levasseur’s expected speech at the University of Massachusetts Thursday.
Levasseur, a convicted bomber hailed by some as a hero and derided by others as a terrorist, will not be speaking at the event, “The Great Western Massachusetts Sedition Trial: Twenty Years Later.”
The U.S. Parole Commission, which supervises the parole of people convicted of federal offenses, denied Levasseur the right to travel from his home state of Maine to Massachusetts to deliver the address. Levasseur can only cross state lines with permission from the Commission, and though he has been allowed to speak before at universities such as Columbia, Temple and the University of Southern Maine, the Commission denied him the right to travel to Amherst.
Levasseur would not speculate on why the Commission rejected this request.
“I don’t have any inside knowledge of what they based their decision on,” said Levasseur, reached by the Daily Collegian Wednesday night from his home in Portland, Maine. “I leave it up to others to see how things unfolded and what they think led to it, I didn’t get a written notification,” he said.
Calls requesting comment from the Parole Commission, based in Chevy Chase, Md., on why the board refused Mr. Levasseur’s request were not returned before press time.
Levasseur, the former leader of the now infamous United Freedom Front, said of the event that he “will be there in spirit,” but that he would not be participating in any capacity.
He said he was frustrated with the Commission’s decision because he feels he will not be able to exercise his right to free speech.
“Obviously I’m disappointed, I’m not able to exercise my first amendment rights,” he said. “I feel like I have a right to speak, I feel like other people have a right to listen, discuss, and debate, and I think there’s an infringement on that,” he added.
Levasseur said he hoped people would still attend the speech and that their presence would send a message of support for the first amendment.
“What I’m hoping for is that the student body and the public will really turn out and fill every seat there, and by their presence and their participation and interaction in this event, that that itself will be an affirmation that the first amendment is not easily trampled on,” he said.
Levasseur became embroiled in this controversy after he was invited as part of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library’s fifth annual Colloquium on Social Change.
The original event, also planned for Thursday, was cancelled after the family of a New Jersey State Police officer murdered by a member of the Freedom Front protested Levasseur’s invitation to UMass. Levasseur was never charged in connection with the shooting, but critics saw his invitation to speak as an endorsement of the UFF’s violence against police officers.
From there, right-wing talk shows around the Northeast picked up the story and criticized the university for offering Levasseur the chance to speak.
Word eventually reached Governor Deval Patrick, who asked Chancellor Robert Holub to call off the event.
The event was initially cancelled last week, but harsh responses from around the academic community forced UMass to grudgingly allow the speech to proceed, citing academic freedom, despite what the University said were strong reservations on its behalf.
The event was renamed “The Great Western Massachusetts Sedition Trial: Twenty Years Later,” and will still take place at 7:15 p.m. in the Isenberg School of Management’s room 137, but without Levausser himself on the bill.
The headlining speaker will now be Mr. Levasseur’s ex-wife, Pat, who was also charged with sedition, members of the defense team who represented the Levasseurs in their sedition trial, and a juror from the case.
The Levasseurs and co-defendant Richard Williams stood trial in Springfield in 1989 for sedition, the act of attempting to overthrow the government or civic order. After a 10-month trial which became the costliest in Massachusetts history, all three were acquitted.
While Levasseur, as it turns out, will not speak Thursday, officials were not pleased that he would have spoke had the Parole Commission not allowed him to travel.
UMass system president Jack Wilson said in a statement Tuesday that “Chancellor Holub and I have instructed that no state funds be used to support this activity.”
Rumors circulated Tuesday that the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had spoken out against the cancellation, was either sponsoring or funding the event. Christopher Ott, communications director for the Massachusetts ACLU, said Tuesday that it was “not true.”
He did say, however, that the event has their support.
“We applaud the efforts of students and faculty leaders that have been working to see that the scheduling of the talk is forwarded despite the calls for censorship,” he said.
It remains unclear how the event is being funded.
Levasseur was sent to prison in 1986 for bombing buildings across the East Coast, including eight bombings in the Boston area along with a string of bank robberies. The stated intent of the United Freedom Front was to protest the supposed U.S. backing of the South African apartheid government and Central American death squads.
Members of the United Freedom Front were convicted of the murder of New Jersey State Police officer Phil Lamonaco and the attempted murder of two Massachusetts State Police officers. Levasseur, however, was never charged with these crimes, nor was he at the scene of either incident.
The event will be sponsored by the departments of communication, economics, history, languages, literature, and culture and sociology, as well as the social thought and political economy and women, gender and sexuality programs, the Sociology Graduate Student Association and executive members of the Student Government Association.
Co-sponsoring the event are several non-profit community groups, foundations, and businesses including the Rosenberg Fund for Children, Food for Thought Books, Vermont Action for Political Prisoners and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.
Sam Butterfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bobby Hitt can be reached at email@example.com.