Former radical from Maine to speak at UMass after all

Posted Nov. 10, 2009, at 2:34 p.m.

BOSTON — A convicted domestic terrorist whose scheduled speech at the University of Massachusetts was canceled has been reinvited to campus by a faculty group against the objections of school administration and Gov. Deval Patrick.

Raymond Levasseur, a former leader of the United Freedom Front, is scheduled to speak at the university Thursday night.

The group was linked to 20 domestic bombings in the 1970s and ’80s, and members were convicted of the slaying of a New Jersey state trooper and the attempted killing of two Massachusetts state troopers.

Levasseur, who lives in Waldo, Maine, served nearly two decades in prison after his 1986 conviction for his involvement in a series of bombings carried out to protest U.S. backing of South Africa’s apartheid regime and Central American death squads, according to the university.

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He and two co-defendants also were acquitted of attempting to overthrow the U.S. government in a high-profile trial in Springfield in 1989.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries had invited Levasseur to speak as part of a university-sponsored forum on social unrest, billing the talk as his first return to western Massachusetts since the 1989 trial.

The speech was canceled by the administration after objections from victims’ families, police organizations and Patrick.

University officials said Levasseur was invited back to campus by a faculty group from the department of social thought and political economy. Repeated calls to the department’s office were not returned Tuesday. The rescheduled speech will be held in a different campus building from what had been planned for the original speech.

The university administration said Tuesday it would allow the rescheduled speech in the interest of academic freedom, even though it finds the invitation “repugnant.”

“As a university, we defend the principles of free speech and of academic freedom. However, we deplore the example Levasseur sets for our students and the university community,” UMass President Jack Wilson said in a statement.

“While we see no legitimate way to prevent this event from taking place, Chancellor [Robert] Holub and I have instructed that no state funds be used to support this activity. We know that Gov. Patrick strongly supports us in this position,” Wilson said in a separate statement released later Tuesday.

Gov. Patrick said Tuesday he can’t control all the comings and goings on campus.

“I’m more than a little disappointed about this invitation having been extended,” he said.

He urged those opposed to Levasseur’s talk to exercise their own free-speech rights and protest his appearance.

Amy Lambiaso, a spokeswoman for the State Police Association of Massachusetts, said the organization may organize a protest.

The Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union praised efforts by students and faculty leaders to ensure that the speech goes forward “despite calls for censorship.”

“Whatever you think of this particular speaker, his invitation to speak shouldn’t be revoked because someone objects,” said Carol Rose, executive director of ACLU of Massachusetts. “This situation is an important reminder that we must remain true to the principles of free speech and the marketplace of ideas — even unpopular ideas — upon which our state universities, and nation, were built.”

Levasseur also came under fire when he helped organize an art exhibit at the University of Southern Maine in September 2006. Levasseur said at the time he does not think public universities should back down when pressured by corporations and police.

Levasseur did not immediately return messages left at his home Tuesday.

Glen Johnson contributed to this report from Boston.

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