Patrick criticizes faculty decision on UMass speaker

By Jack Nicas
Globe Correspondent / November 11, 2009

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Opponents of an invitation for convicted terrorist Ray Luc Levasseur to speak at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this week breathed a collective sigh of relief last Thursday, when organizers of a forum canceled his visit amid an uproar from state and university leaders.

But their victory was short-lived. Yesterday, Governor Deval Patrick and UMass officials launched a fresh broadside a day after a small group of faculty independently invited Levasseur to the state’s flagship campus.

“I am more than a little disappointed about this invitation having been extended,’’ Patrick said at a State House news conference. “I fully get the point and respect the idea of free speech. But I think it is a reflection of profound insensitivity to continue to try and have this former terrorist on the campus.’’

As protesters geared for a big turnout tomorrow, campus leaders echoed the governor’s stance. But they asserted they could not overstep the academic freedom of faculty.

“We believe that Levasseur sets a deplorable example for our students and for the University community,’’ UMass President Jack M. Wilson said in a statement.

“The decision to invite him was made by a small number of faculty members. With that decision having been made, we see no way of preventing a speaking appearance, based on the free speech and free assembly rights we enjoy in this country and based on the well-established principles of academic freedom.’’

Wilson said he had directed that no state funds be used to support the event.

Levasseur’s antigovernment United Freedom Front left many victims in its wake as it carried out a series of bank robberies and bombings, including the 1976 bombing of the Suffolk County Courthouse, which injured 22 people.

Donna Lamonaco, the widow of a New Jersey state trooper shot dead in 1981 by members of the group, said she was “appalled, frustrated, emotionally drained’’ by the prospect of such a public forum for Levasseur. President Wilson “still has a choice though, doesn’t he?’’ she said. “And he’s choosing to let this go on.’’

Lamonaco, who said she pushed the university to cancel the event last week, has organized two busloads of protesters to drive from New Jersey to Amherst tomorrow. The expected group of about 50 will meet law enforcement officials from across Massachusetts to protest the speech, she said.

But another victim, who testified against Levasseur in 1989 in his federal sedition trial, said he should be allowed to speak, allowing students to make their own judgments.

“There must be some freedom of expression,’’ Edmund Narine, who lost a leg in the courthouse attack, said in a telephone interview from Uganda yesterday. “But I think the students will condemn him for what he did that day.’’

University officials said professor Sara Lennox, who directs the Program on Social Thought and Political Economy, was one of the professors who reached out to Levasseur after his invitation was rescinded. Lennox did not return several messages last night.

During his lecture, scheduled as of yesterday for 7 p.m. tomorrow in the School of Management, Levasseur is expected to talk about his sedition trial 20 years ago, billed as the longest and most expensive trial in state history, according to the website of the Social Thought Program.

In the 10-month trial, he avoided additional jail time when a federal jury acquitted him of attempting to overthrow the government by force. In 2004, he was released from prison after serving 18 years of a 45-year sentence on terrorism charges, and now lives in Maine on federal parole.

The controversy made it to the floor of the state Senate yesterday, where members passed a nonbinding resolution condemning the invitation of Levasseur. The measure, which passed 33-1, was sponsored by Republicans Robert L. Hedlund, Bruce Tarr, Michael Knapik, Richard Tisei, and Scott Brown and Democrats Steven Baddour and Steven Panagiotakos.