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Universities should not stop controversial speeches

If there’s one thing college students know how to do best, it’s protesting. But students at some American schools need to learn to not let their voices drown out those they oppose.

Two very different political leaders recently experienced such protests at two U.S. universities. Outcry at the University of Wyoming (UW) caused officials to cancel a speech by 1960s anti-government radical William Ayers. Former U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo could not finish an anti-illegal immigrant speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because of protesters.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ayers was involved with a radical anti-war group that claimed responsibility for several bombings, according to The Associate Press. Now, he’s an education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He was thrust back into prominence during the 2008 presidential election when GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin tried to connect him to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Ayers was invited to speak at UW by the Social Justice Research Center earlier this month, but the school rescinded its invitation after students and community members started protesting. UW spokesman Jim Kearns said to AP that the college received about 430 e-mails, which included violent threats, and phone calls.

“The University of Wyoming is one of the few institutions remaining in today’s environment that garner the confidence of the public,” President Tom Buchanan said in a statement defending the decision. “The visit by Professor Ayers would have adversely impacted that reputation.”

The university should not have caved in to local pressure. It should have recognized Ayers’ freedom of speech. UW student Meg Lanker tried to arrange another venue for Ayers, but the university resisted. Now, the two are suing the school.

Lanker said to the AP that she is supporting Ayers’ freedom of speech, not necessarily his politics. She admitted to protesting a UW speech by former Vice President Dick Cheney but drew a distinction between now and then.

“When I protested Cheney, one thing I was absolutely emphatic about is we will not shut this down, we will not shut it down,” she said to AP. “That would be rude.”

Unfortunately, that was not the attitude protesters took at Tancredo’s April 13 speech. Students yelled profanities and held up banners until police escorted Tancredo from the room before he could finish after someone broke a window, according to The News & Observer, a North Carolina newspaper.

Tancredo got a chance to deliver his full speech at UNC on Monday, though more than 100 students walked out during the speech and began a pro-immigration rally, according to The News & Observer.

The behavior displayed by UW and UNC students should be unacceptable in an education-promoting environment, but these are not unique incidents. Freedom of speech does not give students or colleges the right to silence the speech of others.