Mishandling of Lavesseur

It has been nearly a week since a panel discussion entitled “The Great Western Massachusetts Sedition Trial: 20 Years Later,” drew criticism for its invitation of convicted bomber Raymond Luc Levasseur. The University of Massachusetts remains under the microscope.

The Massachusetts Daily Collegian thinks it’s worth looking back on how the situation was handled by University and state leadership.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was clearly more concerned about improving his image among police officers than with upholding the values of public education when he called publicly for UMass to rescind its invitation to Levasseur. As the week unfolded in a dizzying back-and-forth over the forum, the event became a public relations gaffe that hurt the image of his administration and the University.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Library holds a Colloquium on Social Change each year. According to the Department of Special Collections website, the event builds upon “the activist legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois,” collecting “primary materials relating to individuals and groups devoted to the political, economic, spiritual and social transformation of American society.”

Levasseur, the former leader of the United Freedom Front, an organization responsible for multiple bombings across the United States in protest to American military action abroad – as well as the murder and attempted murder of police officers – was supposed to take part in this year’s forum. Levasseur is either a terrorist or a freedom fighter, depending on whom you ask. Yet it’s hard to argue that he isn’t a living, breathing primary document.

Levasseur was a defendent in the most expensive court case in Massachusetts history, when he and six of his cohorts were tried in a Springfield, Mass., courthouse for seditious conspiracy in 1989. Seven people were accused of trying to overthrow the U.S. government, 20 miles away from this campus, 20 years ago. It was clearly a historic event, and its 20th anniversary a prime opportunity to examine its significance.

This was not a celebration of revolution; it was a forum on an historic event. The legal history of the United States is populated by ne’er-do-wells, some of them much worse than Levasseur. The protections in our constitution, which were upheld on that day in Springfield, Mass., in 1989, exist not to protect the law-abiding. They exist to protect the Ray Levasseurs.

Yet the portrayal of this event in the mainstream media as an endorsement of radical violence resonated loudly when hundreds of members of fraternal police organizations descended on campus with signs that read “UMass Supports Terrorism Recruitment.”

Even more troubling was administrative reaction to UMass professors who invited Levasseur back to campus in spite of Gov. Patrick’s request. Chancellor Robert C. Holub called it controversy for its own sake. UMass system President Jack Wilson said the University never wanted him to speak, anyway.

If they really felt this way, they would have stepped in at the onset of controversy, not after being shamed into it.

Patrick’s handling was equally puzzling, because in the end all it took was a phone call to a parole officer to keep Levasseur at home in Maine. Faced with a governor overstepping his authority and demanding a University event be censored – and an administration too weak willed to fight back – how could UMass professors be expected to act any differently than they did? How could anyone expect to silence the organizers of a colloquium on social justice?

For the record, neither Patrick, Wilson or Holub bothered to go to the event, even though Mr. Levasseur stayed home. They likely would have been disappointed. It really wasn’t very controversial.

Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian’s Editorial Board.