Between Free Speech and a Hard Place

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THE president of the university faced a no-win situation. A controversial speaker had been invited to campus, alumni were in an uproar, members of the faculty were outraged, even local business leaders protested.

The university president responded with a fierce declaration of principle: “It is my view that as long as our students can be orderly about it they should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself and in which they are interested.”

The writer was Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. The year was 1932. The speaker invited to campus by a student group was the Communist candidate for president, viewed by many in that era as a national threat.

Controversial speakers have probably visited American campuses for as long as there have been campuses, and university officials faced with managing the situation have often reacted as Mr. Hutchins did, with a fervent defense of academia as a marketplace of ideas that must be kept unfettered.

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William Mandel - 10/4/2007

University officials often, in my memory more often than contrariwise, barred Communist speakers at the bottom of the Great Depression. There were major struggles over this at many higher educational institutions, including New York's CCNY, where I was a student and in fact was expelled over a free speech issue, although in that particular case it was anti-militarist. Until President FD Roosevelt, in 1933, began the process of social reforms we know as the New Deal, the degree of social unrest in this country created a situation approaching, but never reaching, revolutionary. His reforms were a deliberate and conscious response to that unrest, and did quell it. The biggest issue in the country was mass unemployment, which reached 17,000,000, close to 40% of the then much smaller population of working age in a country then much more agricultural and not dependent upon wages or salaries.