LARAMIE — Meg Lanker isn’t fazed by the death threats she has received over the years.
“I feel like if somebody is going to hurt me or attack me or want to kill me for what I have to say, then fine,” she said. “No. 1, that’s why we have law enforcement, and No. 2, that’s on them. That is not on me. And that is not going to shut me up.”
The 26-year-old Navy veteran from Defiance, Ohio, has never been one to back down from a fight.
As one of the pre-eminent student activists at the University of Wyoming, she was a key organizer of the protests against former Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to campus last fall.
But now, she’s in the middle of the biggest conflict of her life: fighting to bring Bill Ayers to UW.
In 1969, he co-founded the Weather Underground, a Marxist-Leninist anti-war group that bombed the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol and other government buildings. After he spent years as a fugitive, federal charges against him were eventually dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct.
Today, Ayers is an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies, among other things, teaching about social justice, urban educational reform and children in trouble with the law.
On Monday, Lanker will appear in federal court in Casper as she and Ayers seek an injunction forcing UW administrators to allow Ayers to speak on campus.
Such determination doesn’t come as a surprise to those who know Lanker.
“Once she believes in something, she never wavers,” said her mother, Diane Lanker. “She’ll go through with it through thick and thin.”
Italy to Wyoming
Lanker has been politically active almost since she learned to speak. As she was growing up in Defiance, her father, a lab technician for the city’s water treatment plant, was president of the local union.
“One of my first sentences as a kid was, ‘Go union!’ ” Lanker said. “But it came out, ‘Go onion!’ ”
In 2001, her parents moved to Buffalo. Lanker, 17, chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy — partly to earn college money, partly because she didn’t want to move to Wyoming.
“It was Wyoming — it was even smaller than my hometown,” she said.
Lanker spent the next two years as a radio DJ and journalist for the Navy in Naples, Italy, receiving an honorable discharge in 2003 because of asthma complications.
She started school that fall at UW, but she soon got married and dropped out to support her husband as he studied for an engineering degree.
After she and her husband divorced, she studied at Sheridan College before returning to UW in 2008.
A criminal justice/psychology major, Lanker said she’s aiming to earn both a doctorate in clinical psychology and a law degree. Eventually, she said, she hopes to become an expert witness in trials and help evaluate criminal defendants.
She’s a strong proponent of using rehabilitation programs, such as behavioral therapy and outpatient drug rehab, to reform criminals instead of sending them to jail.
“Look at Bill Ayers — he made something of himself,” Lanker said, offering an example. “I know he wasn’t convicted, but even still — he made something of himself.
“He’s still, of course, being tried in the court of public opinion,” she added.
Talk with Lanker for any amount of time, and several character traits show themselves immediately: She’s outgoing, sarcastically funny, and definitely not afraid to speak her mind.
As she sat in a coffee shop near campus with boyfriend Andrew Simons, the conversation turned to arguments opponents are making against Ayers’ visit.
“A lot of conservatives point to the Founding Fathers and how awesome the Founding Fathers were,” Lanker said. “Actually, the Founding Fathers were, in their own right, domestic terrorists.”
Simons cast a brief look at a reporter’s tape recorder sitting on the table before grimacing and burying his head in his hands.
“They were going against the king,” Lanker continued, “but you know what, history looks upon them favorably, and God love the Founding Fathers for doing it.”
Simons started shaking his head slowly.
“I’m so glad that they took the initiative — I know, Andrew, you’re going, ‘Did she just really call the Founding Fathers domestic terrorists?’ ” she said, noticing her boyfriend’s distress.
Lanker laughed. “It’s a great question to take out of context, I’m not going to lie.”
She shares her views using almost any medium available to her: She hosts a weekly radio show called “Cognitive Dissonance,” which includes music, politically themed skits, and crowning a “D-bag of the week.” Lanker herself does an above-average Sarah Palin impression, which she’s not afraid to break out whenever the former Alaska governor’s name is raised.
She also runs The Underground, a news and opinion website.
Until last summer, Lanker also wrote scathing columns in the UW student newspaper, the Branding Iron.
She received her first death threats after writing two columns about gay marriage and university budget cuts, “They were very vague, like, ‘You should think about your future,’ ” she said.
But Lanker was fired from the Branding Iron after the paper’s editor accused her of plagiarism. Lanker disputes the validity of those claims, saying the editor just Googled random phrases from her column, such as “properly inflated tires can increase gas mileage,” and found other websites with the same wording.
Last September, Lanker heard from a graduate student friend that UW’s Social Justice Research Center, a 2-year-old anonymously endowed institution, was planning to bring Ayers to campus in the spring to discuss education theory.
Having read Ayers’ memoirs in high school, Lanker was excited at the news.
“I’m honestly interested what the man has to say about education,” she said. “He’s the pre-eminent expert in the field, well respected, and it’s an issue that I’m very interested in. Because I think that educational reform is a key piece of keeping people out of the criminal justice system.”
But many others weren’t as thrilled by the news. When media reports came out about Ayers’ visit, the SJRC and university administrators were bombarded with hundreds of phone calls and e-mails expressing outrage that UW would invite someone with Ayers’ past to speak. Some of the calls threatened violence or cutting off funding to the university.
On March 31, SJRC director Francisco Rios withdrew the invitation for Ayers to speak, citing safety concerns.
When Lanker heard the news, she was angry.
She contacted Ayers, who readily agreed to come to UW later in the month and even offered to cover his travel expenses himself.
For his speaking fee, Lanker hit the phones. She raised nearly $2,000 in 48 hours, all from individual Wyoming residents.
“The reason that I decided to do something about it was because I didn’t know if anybody else was, and this is something that I felt passionate about,” she said. “I just felt like it was completely egregious the way that (UW administrators) were handling it.”
“I almost felt,” she said, “like they were daring someone to do something about it.”
But when she told UW Provost Myron Allen of her plans, she soon received a phone call from Susan Weidel, the school’s attorney, notifying her Ayers was banned from speaking on campus. UW still hasn’t given a reason for its decision.
She and Ayers sued a couple of days later.
What’s the fuss about?
So far, Lanker hasn’t gotten any death threats over Ayers, though she has received dozens of e-mails. One recent e-mail from an Oklahoma man said he wanted to drive to Laramie to spit on her, adding that as a Christian he hoped she would die.
“He’s a charmer, that one,” she said.
Lanker said all the attention has made her a bit nervous and tense — “but not like hide under my bed and fold a blankie over me scared,” she quickly added.
“Am I going to pay attention when I walk to my car and it’s dark out? Yeah,” she concluded. “Am I going to shut up? No.”
She also insists her stance on Ayers isn’t political, but moral. When an opponent of Ayers’ visit called Lanker suggesting UW also bring neoconservative activist David Horowitz to debate Ayers, she took him up on the idea.
“I think he was expecting me to respond, ‘Oh, hell no, we don’t want those conservative-like S-O-Bs here,” she said. “No, bring ’em!”
But at least one of her opponents in the Ayers controversy thinks Lanker’s activism is as much about promoting herself as bolstering the causes she champions.
Brian Profaizer, president of the University of Wyoming conservatives, said when he attended a campus free-speech rally last Thursday organized by Lanker, he got the feeling Lanker was trying more to make herself heard than to convince people of her arguments.
“I know she believes in what she’s doing, but I can’t help but think that maybe there is some sort of self-serving agenda in there as well,” Profaizer said.
Profaizer first met Lanker last fall, when she handed him a flyer about the Cheney protests. Such activism makes Profaizer doubt that Lanker would champion free-speech rights for someone she disagrees with.
“Even though she said she would bring a lawsuit against the university if this was the same situation with a conservative speaker, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think she’d be there protesting.”
No matter how the court rules Monday, Ayers is still coming to Laramie on Wednesday to speak at the Laramie Civic Center. If the injunction is granted, he’ll also speak on campus, possibly at the UniWyo Sports Complex.
Ayers said previously that his lecture will focus on two themes: the ethical and intellectual commitments of teaching, and how teaching in a democratic society differs from teaching under other social and political systems.
While Lanker said she fully expects protesters to follow Ayers throughout his visit to Laramie, she predicted that the whole controversy will end rather anti-climactically.
“I think in the end,” she said, “when people hear his lecture, they’re going to wonder what all the fuss is about.”