Monday, September 9, 2013
Last year, a faculty member in my department had an intriguing idea: to invite to campus Damien Echols, a man who has recently published a memoir but who is better known for being one of the "West Memphis Three." You may or may not have heard of the West Memphis Three, but know that for several years they were a serious cause célèbre, not only in my home state of Arkansas but in other parts of the country. A documentary about the the three, West of Memphis, was released last winter, only one of several movies that have been made about them, with more to follow. Here in a nutshell is their story: Twenty years ago, three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas were brutually murdered, their bodies tied together and mutilated. Three teenagers--who later became known as the West Memphis Three--were quickly arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime. Damien Echols, supposedly the ringleader of the Three, was sentenced to death. The other two teenagers--Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin--were given sentences of life imprisonment. It's impossible in this space to go through all the various legal battles that were fought over the next two decades, the reservations that were raised about the evidence and how it was gathered; new forensic evidence revealed in 2007 that suggested the presence of other, yet-to-be-identified individuals at the crime scene on the night of the murder; the outcries the case raised inside and outside the state, both from supporters and critics of the Three; and the number of articles and books written as a result. But it's safe to say that nearly twenty years after the initial guilty verdict significant questions remain about how the case was handled, with a burgeoning consensus opinion that the Three were wrongly convicted.
While the Three never received the retrial that they wanted, sentiment in favor of their innocence ran so strongly that two years ago they were allowed the option of entering an Alford plea, a complicated legal manuever that ultimately permitted them to leave jail as free men without being officially exonerated; that is, without the state of Arkansas having to admit they never should have been locked up in the first place. (Instead it was determined that the time they had already served in prison satisifed their sentences.)
Fast forward to 2013, and Damien Echols is not only an ex-convict but the author of the recently released (and critically acclaimed) Life after Death, the story of his life before, during, and after his imprisonment. Given the power of his story, and his obvious notoriety, it occurred to one UCA Writing faculty member last fall that Echols would be a natural to fill a visiting writer slot for 2013-14. While this was not my idea, I did support it. Every year at UCA we invite artists of all stripes and backgrounds to visit campus, to read from their work, and to share thoughts on their craft with students and members of the public. To say the least, over the years we've entertained visiting artists of wildly divergent ages, socio-economic backgrounds, politics, religious beliefs, aesthetic tastes, and creative histories. Allowing our students access to a range of voices wider than those of our regular, continuing faculty is a critical part of their writing education--and their university education, period. And given that Echols, with the permission of the state of Arkansas, is now a free man, there certainly was no legal hindrance on our part from inviting him or on his part from accepting the invitation.
So now we are letting it be known that Echols is coming to UCA this semester, and the reaction we've gotten has surprised and disheartened me. While many on campus and in the central Arkansas area are glad and excited for his visit, and are eagerly planning on attending his public event, we are also receiving livid emails from individuals who believe Echols should never be allowed to speak anywhere ever again. It has been suggested in some of these emails that he will unduly influence the impressionable minds of our students, leading them astray. Some of these emails have been so disturbing that the dean's office has had to make arrangements for security to be present at Echols' events. (I should add here that to their credit UCA administrators have rejected out of hand any notion that Echols' visit should be canceled, which is what the email screamers are telling us to do.) Needless to say, arranging for enhanced security is not our normal protocol for entertaining visiting writers. And it never should have to be. The point of a college campus is to promote academic growth, intellectual curiosity, and artistic maturity. None of those outcomes can be attained if one reacts to new ideas and unusual speakers with fear, hatred, or simple noise. That is classically the wrong approach to take. Instead, all of us, myself included, need to trust that in a marketplace of competing words and ideas, the truth will win out. Arguably, the truth sufficiently won out in the West Memphis Three case to convince the state of Arkansas that it made more sense to let the Three go then to keep them in prison. Are there those who believe the state made a wrong decision in letting the Three out? Absolutely. And they have stated their arguments with considerable passion. I expect and hope they will continue to do so, while at the same time I hope they will respect the right--even the duty--of a university to bring speakers of diverse public interest and artistic accomplishment to campus. Part of me is worried about the hornet's nest of anger we've stirred up by inviting Damien Echols to campus, but another part of me says that this means we've done exactly the right thing. Education doesn't happen without some controversy and without lots of unpleasant truth telling. I know that my colleagues in the Department of Writing--down to the last woman and man--are concerned more than anything with mentoring the young minds entrusted to our care. I can only hope we are allowed to continue pursuing that mission, rather than be shouted down by a few who, so far at least, seem to lack faith in the marketplace of ideas.