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Between the Lines: "The Right to Hear"

An afterthought on the Levasseur appearance that didn't happen

Comments (3)
Thursday, December 03, 2009

Many years ago I was chatting with local American Civil Liberties Union attorney Bill Newman about the meaning of freedom of speech. The concept of free speech, he said, "has a lot of corners. It includes the right to hear."

That had never occurred to me. But as I thought of countries where people were at the mercy of government-sponsored news and propaganda programs and had to use underground methods to get information, it made sense.

I've thought of that conversation at least six times a day since the recent sequence of events at UMass involving Ray Luc Levasseur.

In 1989, this newspaper covered the long, expensive sedition trial in which Levasseur and his associates, known then as the Ohio Seven, were acquitted by a jury in Springfield. Our very able reporter, Kris Hundley, had a passionate interest in the sedition issue and the militants in the dock. I didn't want to dampen her enthusiasm, but personally I was irritated, not only by the violent means the defendants had used to call attention to what they saw as abuses, but even more by what I saw as the arrogance of those actions.

To use violence is to be so arrogant, so sure that one is right. I had a doctorate in English and had written a dissertation on George Eliot, who spoke of "that fragmentary, doubt-provoking knowledge which we call truth." People who turn to violence are past doubt; they're more certain of whatever they're certain of than anyone has a right to be in this life, and people who felt that they were so right—so past the need to learn that they could justifiably commit acts with irrevocable physical effects—turned me off.

Twenty years passed, 15 with Levasseur in jail. A month ago his name crossed my desk again. Levasseur. Coming to UMass to speak. We can't cover everyone who comes to speak. What was the news here?

The news was that Amherst was blowing up. State police (a group closely tied to the state political machine) whose colleague had been killed by one of Levasseur's group in the '80s were determined that Levasseur wasn't coming to UMass. They lobbied legislators. They lobbied the governor. They lobbied the U.S. Parole Commission. The meeting, cancelled, reorganized and cancelled again, didn't happen.

It wouldn't be easy to argue that prior restraint was an issue since the speech was not—not officially—cancelled by government fiat. And the situation wasn't without humor; that a quiet department like Special Collections and Archives had unintentionally started up one of the biggest conflagrations in town in years was hilarious. Who'd have imagined such a thing?

But the point left out in the back-and-forth about whether or not Levasseur had a right to speak was this: what about those who wanted to hear him? What about scholars with specialties in history and the issue of sedition who wanted Levasseur at the podium, not to turn him into a folk hero, but to see if his speech would offer explicit or implicit answers to the question, Why did you turn to violence?

The period in which Levasseur and his United Freedom Front were active spawned a crop of militant groups, including the Symbionese Liberation Army. Why? We don't always have such a proliferation of such groups, and now that both the militants and the rest of us can take some distance, there's good reason for inquiring about why we did then.

But the Advocate is biased in favor of dissidents, say some readers. Less true that I have a bias in favor of people who blow up courthouses than that I, who had academic interests, have a bias in favor of those who wanted to hear Levasseur, just as I have a bias in favor of those (myself included) who wanted to hear Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he appeared at Columbia University and on Sixty Minutes.

To want to hear is not to glorify. To want to hear is to want to assess our adversaries and gain ground in the struggle to understand their thought—to form our own opinions, not simply take the word of the government or whoever controls the flow of information if that flow is not free.

Comments (3)
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"has a lot of corners. It includes the right to hear." #1 - That doesn't mean he has the right to speak at a university any more than you or I do. #2 - He can be heard in any number of other ways. #3 - Obviously enough people DIDN'T want to hear him. The backlash against the university was a triumph for free speech.
Posted by Joe on 12.2.09 at 7:12
Uh, the backlash against the university, the parole board, and governor Patrick were for interfering in academic matters and independence and freedom they surely knew they had no right to. In the end, the only ones who won were the fascsists who wanted to censor his message, and the entire concept of academic freedom. Truly sad.
Posted by Gregory on 12.2.09 at 10:00
Hey Gregory, here is a suggestion. If you are so passionate about hearing him speak, why don't you find a few highly paid academics and rent a hall for the night and let him speak to whomever wants to go. Problem solved and one less reason for you to cry.
Posted by Greg on 12.4.09 at 3:17
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