Obama's predicament is fairly straightforward. As a popular and pathbreaking president, most institutions of higher learning would fall over themselves to have him speak to departing graduates. Notre Dame leaped at the opportunity, and also offered Obama an honorary doctorate of law. Select students, staff members, and alumni have since rallied against the invitation, suggesting that Obama's support for expanded abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research stands in conflict with the university's Catholic mission. To date, Obama is still slotted to speak, and though he may compete with protesters on site, the marketplace of ideas and academic freedom flourish in the process.
We cannot say the same for Notre Dame's Catholic brethren in Boston. Ayers, whose claim to fame is tied to his role as a member of the Weather Underground in the 1960's and 1970's, has since moved beyond his youthful indiscretions and charted the course of an education reformer. However, his past life and prominence in the just-completed campaign make him an interesting draw. Indeed, his 2001 book documenting his past life, Days of Rage, is a must-read.
Ayers planned speech at Boston College was eventually moved off campus and televised remotely. University officials stood behind the cloak of a private university, along with a potential link between the Weather Underground and a slain Boston police officer. Boston College is not bound to the dictates of the First Amendment, but their decision to pull the carpet from Ayers represents a direct threat to academic freedom.
As reported in the Boston Globe, a student organizer of the speech warned of the standard this indecision and capitulation may establish: "Now the precedent that they're setting is that if something goes against the wills of alumni who call in and threaten to pull donations . . . any events could get canceled."
Ayers also pointed to the of perils of the so-called "heckler's veto": "Let's say the mob gathers outside the gate at BC and demands that they teach astrology, or creationism, or that the world is flat. Should they then give in to the mob and teach those things? Absolutely not. So why should they do that with this?"
Closer to home, a similar predicament involving Ayers came to a head at Naperville North High School. His April 8th speech to a select group of students was canceled by the local superintendent in response to community uproar and the distraction it created for students. Given that this is a public high school, the First Amendment is certainly in play, though student speech and expression is limited by a series of Supreme Court precedents. The ruling standard here is the Hazelwood decision that enables administrators to exercise prior review of speech and other expressive activities disseminated by the school (in this case an assembly) for "legitimate pedagogical reasons."
On constitutional grounds I cannot quibble with District 203's actions, but the law of unintended consequences is arguably more powerful in this scenario. The superintendent allowed dissenting voices in the community to override the equal number of supportive messages he received, and simultaneously curtailed the "marketplace of ideas." While the District may save face with angry parents, students are taught that speech is free so long as a majority, or even vocal minority, supports its content.
In Naperville as in Boston, the hecklers won in their battle to sanitize the marketplace of a voice on the fringe, but nonetheless deserving of a place at the table. Here's hoping that there is room for both the heckler and the leader of the free world in South Bend next month. Who knows, through a marketplace where ideas are forced to compete with one another, but parties may actually learn something from one another, elevating and not sanitizing public discourse.