Levasseur should speak
This week’s back and forth over the scheduling of a lecture by Raymond Luc Levasseur, former leader of the United Freedom Front (UFF) and convicted bomber, sets a troubling precedent for the University of Massachusetts and how it handles outside pressure to suppress speech.
Levasseur is known as a domestic terrorist to his critics and a martyr to his supporters, but he’s also a living artifact, a defendent in what was, in 1989, the longest and most expensive trial in Massachusetts history. He and his co-defendents Patricia Gros Levasseur and Richard C. Williams, were acquitted on charges of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government.
His original lecture was to be held at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library as part of its fifth annual Colloquium on Social Change.
However, under pressure from fraternal-police organizations, as well as the family of victims of violent acts committed by the UFF, Gov. Patrick pressured UMass officials to rescind Levasseur’s invitation. They did.
Days later, University professors invited Levasseur back to campus at a different venue with different sponsors. Following news of Levasseur’s re-invitation, the University issued a statement, condemning it as “repugnant.” The statement, unsigned and issued by spokesman Patrick Callahan, essentially throws its own faculty under the bus while trying to distance the administration from the decision.
Event organizers released a statement late yesterday afternoon saying that Levasseur had been denied permission to travel out of state by the U.S. Parole Board.
The Massachusetts Daily Collegian outright condemns the bombings committed by Levasseur and the UFF. This should go without saying. However, critics of Levasseur’s invitation to campus have tried to caricature it as an endorsement of terrorist activity, as if Levasseur was invited not to provide rare insight into a significant moment in this state’s history, but to recruit for his next plot.
This whole episode reveals some unsettling things about the University leadership and the state government. When controversy over Levasseur’s invitation first arose last week, UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski told The Republican that while UMass condemns Levasseur’s actions, “understanding how and why people take different paths to seek social change are important.”
That sounds like a University that knows the difference between engaging with those who have unpopular views and endorsing them. However, under pressure from Gov. Patrick and UMass system President Jack Wilson, the administration did an about-face, stating in the above unsigned statement that, “The university administration did not invite this speaker and would not invite him. A group of faculty members has decided to invite him. Although the university administration questions the wisdom and common sense of this judgment, the institution must respect academic freedom.”
Now the University has lucked out. Rather than having to make a difficult decision themselves – to risk association with a violent man for giving him a forum to discuss his crimes or to kowtow to those who have reasons, be they personal or political, to silence him – the parole board made it for them.
From materials released before the original event, it seemed like the purpose of inviting Levasseur was to find out what drives someone to commit the atrocities like the UFF bombings.
In the age of the War on Terror, that sounds like a conversation worth having. While The Collegian thinks that people like Levasseur should not be treated as heroes, writing them off as unworthy of being heard only serves to perpetuate the disenfranchisement that can lead to these acts of violence.
Our nation has the highest incarceration rate in the world; perhaps listening to criminals, suspending judgment until after they’ve spoken, might contribute to its decline.
Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of The Massachusetts Daily Collegian editorial board.