On Thursday, November 6, Madison, Wisconsin's Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative and a local newsweekly were able to convince Madison Area Technical College (MATC) to reverse its decision to impose restrictions on a speaking event about the Middle East, featuring noted writer and University of Chicago researcher Ali Abunimah. MATC had attempted to limit the scope of the talk and to deny Rainbow's request to sell books in conjunction with the event after some residents protested the talk due to Abunimah's pro-Palestinian point-of-view. However, faced with an unexpected backlash from the public, MATC decided at the last moment to proceed with the event as scheduled the evening of November 6.
The speaking engagement featuring Abunimah was scheduled as part of MATC's "Reporting From the Middle East," which is sponsored in part by Rainbow Bookstore, and also is part of MATC's Global Horizon lecture series. However, some in the community who vehemently opposed Abunimah's point-of-view on the Middle East exerted pressure on MATC to cancel, or at the very least, limit what Abunimah could talk about at the event. Subsequently, the college "sent an e-mail to Abunimah telling him what he could and could not speak about," Allen Ruff, Rainbow's events coordinator, told BTW.
When Abunimah was informed of the restriction, he told The Isthmus, a Madison alternative weekly newspaper, that it was "an outrageous violation of my First Amendment rights and the rights of the community to engage in dialogue and debate about matters of public interest."
While Ruff said he did not know who in Madison had exerted pressure on the school, The Isthmus quoted Steve Morrison, executive director of the Madison Jewish Community Council, as saying he perceived a lack of balance in the Global Horizon series. Morrison said he told MATC's events coordinator, Geoff Bradshaw, and MATC acting president Roseann Findlen, that his concerns regarding Abunimah would be mitigated if his talk were limited to media issues, the newsweekly reported.
In addition to the attempt to restrict Abunimah's speech, MATC administrators also put a ban on literature tables in the building where Abunimah's talk was being held. "We asked [Bradshaw] if this edict applied to us, and he checked and came back to us with a compromise -- that we could only sell books by Abunimah," Ruff reported. But while Abunimah had published many articles, he had not authored any books. As a result, MATC decided Rainbow could not have a table of books at the event. "We usually have a broad range of books relating to a topic [at similar events]," he said. "We had planned to test [the school decision] by having a table anyway."
Faced with MATC's pronouncement, Ruff notified the local lawyers guild and the ACLU. Isthmus picked up the story and published an article the morning of Abunimah's talk. In a quick turn of events, a few hours later MATC's Student Life Administrator "called me saying it was all a miscommunication, and to proceed as previously planned," he said. "Word got out about this potential for suppression, and it swelled the crowd at the event. There was no opposition [to Abunimah] in the crowd."
The fact that the event went off without restrictions and was a huge success was "certainly a victory in this post-Patriot Act period," Ruff said. "We have to defend ourselves against any attempt to curtail any speech, especially political speech. People will now think twice about such blatant attacks on First Amendment rights." --David Grogan