LARAMIE, Wyo. — Security was heightened as William Ayers delivered a speech on education reform at the University of Wyoming on Wednesday, but only a handful of demonstrators showed up to protest the 1960s radical after a federal judge forced the university to host him.
Roughly 1,100 people went through bag and coat searches to enter the event at a campus gym. About 10 protesters gathered outside the gym's entrance, carrying American flags and denouncing Ayers for his anti-war activities in the Vietnam era.
Now a University of Illinois-Chicago professor, Ayers co-founded the Weather Underground, an anti-war group from the Vietnam Era that claimed to be responsible for a series of bombings, including nonfatal explosions at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.
Chesney Rathbun, a UW senior from Hulet, Wyo., held a sign reading "Millions of veterans died for this?!?" The sign had pictures of the Pentagon and a mug shot of Ayers. Rathbun said he agreed with Ayers' right to speak, but opposed Ayers' viewpoints.
"Terrorism is not welcome here," Rathbun said. "Millions of veterans died for the freedoms that our beautiful country affords them, and he's taking advantage of (those freedoms)."
Ayers noted that the First Amendment was alive and well as he opened the 50-minute address that went off without a hitch.
Other than that remark, his talk focused on conventional ways to improve educational access for all groups of people, stressing that the urban poor were still too often short changed when it came to opportunities for education.
The hourlong question session that followed also mainly dealt with education issues. But to a few questions on his Weather Underground days, Ayers acknowledged that some of its actions were despicable and set a bad example. But he stressed that that was in the context of thousands of people being killed each week in Vietnam.
Ayers' arrival in Wyoming culminated a monthlong fight over whether he should be allowed to speak at the state's only four-year public university.
The prospect of Ayers' visit provoked a tide of angry reaction from some critics in Wyoming, a conservative-leaning state that has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since 1968. The university cited safety concerns in refusing to rent out space for the event.
Ayers' and the student who invited him sued UW, arguing the university had violated the constitutional guarantee of free speech. They suggested the university was more concerned about losing donors than safety.
"A donor who gives to the University of Wyoming – just as a donor who gives to the University of Illinois or the University of Chicago or Harvard or Yale or the University of California – gives to the idea of the university," Ayers said Wednesday. "That donor doesn't get to say 'By the way, you have to hire this professor and this is the book the professor has to teach out of.' What kind of university would that be?"
Ayers' past became a political issue during the 2008 presidential campaign because President Barack Obama had served with Ayers on the board of a Chicago charity. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists."
Obama has condemned Ayers' radical activities, and there's no evidence they were ever close friends or that Ayers advised Obama on policy.
Ayers initially was invited to the Wyoming campus by the UW Social Justice Research Center, but the privately endowed organization canceled the invitation because of hundreds of critical phone calls and e-mails.
Student Meg Lanker then invited Ayers to speak on campus, but the university refused to rent out space for the event, citing safety concerns because of threats the school received.
Lanker and Ayers sued the university, saying it violated their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.
Other universities have canceled Ayers speeches recently, including the University of Nebraska and Boston College. He's also been confronted by protesters at other appearances.
But Ayers testified Monday the Wyoming case is the first time he has filed a lawsuit against a college for denying him the right to speak.