Attorney Ron Kuby reflects on free speech violations at KU, changing ‘marketplace of ideas’

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Civil rights attorney Ron Kuby came to Lawrence for the first time in a decade this weekend — he had an arrest reunion to get to.

“You commemorate what you got, right?” he said. 

The latest University of Kansas commencement marked about 44 years from when Kuby was arrested for holding up a banner bearing the message “KU Out of South Africa” during the Class of 1979’s ceremony. 

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The following year, a dozen people were arrested at commencement. Their offense: Refusing to let go of the banner they’d displayed, reading “Protect First Amendment rights at KU.” 

Kuby, to his chagrin, wasn’t included in that group of arrestees: “They were under orders not to arrest me because I had so much fun with my arrest the year before,” he said.

‘The students were the product’

Kuby spent Saturday evening flitting from friend to friend at a gathering in Old West Lawrence, reminiscing, catching up and arranging to squeeze in one-on-one visits between the two speaking engagements on his schedule Sunday. 

Tim Miller, a now-retired professor of religious studies and American studies affiliated with KU for 60 years, joined Kuby for a Sunday morning program with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lawrence. 

Tim Miller, a now-retired KU professor of religious studies and American studies, joined Ron Kuby for a Sunday morning program on May 14, 2023 with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lawrence. (Screenshot)

Miller and Kuby shared a brief overview and reflections on 1979-1980 at KU, and some other questions of free speech on campus over the years. 

More than 100 people making civil rights demands were arrested and threatened with expulsion from a sit-in outside the chancellor’s office in the ‘60s. It was probably the biggest mass arrest in KU’s history, Miller said. That sit-in inspired administrators to barricade the ends of the hallway outside the chancellor’s office.

“They didn’t want this to happen again, for sure,” Miller said. 

Miller’s presentation to the UUCL included this photo, showing hundreds of people during a sit-in outside the KU chancellor’s office in the 1960s. (Screenshot)
Lucy Peterson/Lawrence Times KU students gather outside administrative offices in Strong Hall for a sit-in, Sept. 17, 2021.

Fast forward to the mid-1970s, when Chancellor Archie Dykes had a newspaper box removed from outside the Kansas Union. The box held copies of The City Moon, a satirical, underground newspaper. 

“Well, that’s flagrantly contrary to the First Amendment,” Miller said. “This has been well litigated. It’s well understood. We have a right to publish and disseminate periodicals.”

Kuby later came to a better understanding of the attitudes that he believes led to these and other violations of students’ and faculty members’ free speech. 

“I thought education is kind of like a product, right? I am the consumer of that product, and I have some sort of generalized right to talk about the product, how it can be improved, what can be done better to package it, how to make it better, how to deliver it in a more effective fashion, and how to complain about defective parts of it,” Kuby said.

“And it really wasn’t until my second year of law school that I realized how fundamentally wrong I was. The students were not the consumers. The students were the product. Society was the consumer.”

To university administrators at the time, anything that got in the way of producing that product had to be squelched, Kuby said; there was no tolerance for dissent of any kind.

“We would hand out a copy of the Bill of Rights with a stamp that said ‘Void where prohibited,’ and we’ve been told we can’t leaflet here,” Kuby said. “… The issue wasn’t content at that point; the issue was the very fact that it was happening.”

‘The KU 12’

Content would become an issue, however, Kuby said.

He and other students became vocal in a movement pushing for KU to divest from South Africa, where white authoritarians were forcing nonwhite people to relocate from their homes and enforcing apartheid, among other atrocities. 

“Then the opposition became intensely ideological,” Kuby said. 

Students handed out leaflets with information about KU’s ties to South Africa during the 1979 commencement. (Screenshot)

Rather than hold a structured civil debate or forum over the issues with knowledgeable faculty members, the university instead tried to shut down the students and created “this whole kerfluffle,” Kuby said.

“We took these issues that we were protesting about and we kind of packaged them as part of a larger freedom of speech inquiry, because we knew that not everybody was interested in the issues we were talking about, but they at least would be interested in why what these people are saying is provoking a police response from the university,” Kuby said. That way, people would presumably learn about the issues they were discussing.

Ahead of the 1980 commencement, the free speech activists had created a banner that read “Protect First Amendment rights at KU.”

Students had a banner made that read “Protect First Amendment rights at KU.” (Screenshot)

Sure enough, officers “tried simply to take the banner away from us,” Miller said. “They didn’t succeed; we hung on tight. And so eventually they arrested us.”

Ten in their group, and two others, were arrested that day. 

Bearing in mind what had happened the year prior, students had a second banner waiting and ready to unfurl for the occasion: this one in bright yellow, reading “Help! We’re being arrested!” 

Students had a second banner waiting and ready to unfurl for the 1980 KU commencement: this one in bright yellow, reading “Help! We’re being arrested!” (Screenshot)

Chancellor Dykes resigned soon after that spectacle, and Del Shankel took over as interim chancellor.

The students knew Shankel wasn’t going to repeat the actions of his predecessor, so they had a third banner made for the fall convocation in 1980: “Thanks for not arresting us!” 

All three banners were displayed for the UUCL crowd Sunday morning. 

A third banner, made for KU’s fall 1980 convocation, reads “Thanks for not arresting us!” (Screenshot)

A changing ‘marketplace of ideas’

Kuby used to be a First Amendment absolutist, he said. 

In order to remain that way, “You have to believe that there is a marketplace of ideas, and in that marketplace, sooner or later, the good ideas, ideas of peace and love and nonviolent problem-solving and all of those things that we believe in — those ideas ultimately will triumph over the bad ideas,” Kuby told the congregation.

He said that is the concept in which the First Amendment is based and how it has been defended for more than 200 years. 

“I don’t think that’s true anymore. I just don’t think that that’s correct,” Kuby said. 

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He said there’s a difference between what was happening at KU in the late ‘70s and what’s happening now. 

“When we were protesting speakers or inviting speakers, as a general rule, whether you like them or dislike them, they were people who had something to say,” Kuby said, naming Bob Dole, Alexander Haig and Yitzhak Rabin as examples. “… They were people who made actual decisions in the real world that affected real people’s lives, and they were worth listening to, applauding — and heckling, as well, which is a perfectly acceptable form of speech.

“Today, what the right wing has done is they don’t bring speakers to campus for the purpose of having a discussion they bring to campus for the purposes of engaging in provocation,” Kuby continued. “So they take the worst and vilest and most bigoted people … and they are not there to say something. They are there for the purpose of getting heckled.”

Afterward, the speakers close up shop and leave in disgust, talking about “how liberal education is failing our children,” Kuby said. “And they turn this event into a weapon when they had absolutely no intention of saying anything at all.”

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times A crowd listens to Ron Kuby speak, Sunday, May 14, 2023 at Ecumenical Campus Ministries.

But bigger concerns — issues of life and death — have made Kuby question his First Amendment absolutism. 

After watching “relentless demonization” of immigrants, transgender people, people with mental illness, unhoused people and others “that has led to actual violence,” he said he thinks the marketplace of ideas has changed — and perhaps isn’t much of a marketplace anymore.

“I think we’re hundreds, if not thousands, of different ‘shops’ for ideas — some of which are gaudy, and nice, and some of which are small and very boutique-y, with incense,” Kuby told folks at his Sunday evening talk at Ecumenical Campus Ministries. “And some of them are simply rat-infested, roach-filled dumps where people go for their information.”

From attacks on Asian people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic fueled by anti-China rhetoric to queer and nonbinary folks who face threats daily and the homicide of Jordan Neely, who died May 1 after being held in a chokehold on a New York City subway “because of the demonization of mentally ill homeless people of color,” Kuby said, “… at this point, there’s something too facile and cruel to say, ‘Well, you know what, that’s the price we have to pay for a free society.’” 

“One of the things that I’ve learned in 40 years of practicing law is that the people who say ‘This is the price we have to pay’ — there’s one thing about them that’s always true … They aren’t the ones paying the price,” Kuby said. 

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Ron Kuby, civil rights attorney, speaks to a crowd Sunday, May 14, 2023 at Ecumenical Campus Ministries in Lawrence.

Returning to Lawrence

Kuby reflected further on his time in Lawrence and at KU during the arrest reunion weekend, about 10 years since his last visit. 

“I got a fantastic education when I was here — sometimes because of the university and, of course, sometimes in spite of the university — but it was amazing,” he said. “… The faculty that I encountered — they were quirky and brilliant and irreverent and deeply thoughtful, and utterly unacceptable by the standards of today.”

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Kuby, originally from Cleveland, graduated from KU with a degree in cultural anthropology and history. 

“Lawrence was the first place in my life where I really felt at home, and still feel very much at home here,” Kuby said. “Unfortunately, sometimes, as we know, you have to leave home to do some of the things that you want to do.”

He went on to law school at Cornell and soon made his way to New York City, where he joined the law firm of William Kunstler, known for defending the Chicago Seven, among numerous other high-profile cases. And Kuby has taken on plenty of his own noteworthy cases.

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Members of a crowd listen to Ron Kuby speak at ECM, Sunday, May 14, 2023.

He didn’t give up activism when he passed the bar. In fact, he met the woman who would become his wife in the mid-’80s at a demonstration in New York; their eyes met across barricades as she was being carried away by four police officers, screaming, Kuby said. 

And he’s doing what he loves, though sometimes battling exoneration cases for decades can be tiring. Everybody loves the story of an exoneration when your client is actually innocent — but those cases are the “four-leaf clovers,” and you shouldn’t walk all over the three-leaf clovers in the process, Kuby said.

Clients who have benefited from Kuby’s defense work may have the KU police and administration to thank, in part. Kuby was denied the “fun” of getting arrested for free speech activism on campus for a second time at the 1980 commencement, but police did break his wrist pulling a banner away from him.

“My arrest, and the sort of mini police brutality I suffered, really helped inform my perspective on the next 40 years of suing cops and confronting cops in court and exposing wrongful convictions and overcharging and police lies. And you guys, it all started right here,” Kuby said.

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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