The Corner

Education

The Golden Age of Campus Free Speech

Students walk at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N.C., September 20, 2018. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

These days you can get run off a college campus if you express unpopular views on just about any subject. Half a century or so ago, things were a lot different. In 1966 a Columbia University student group called Humanitas decided to test the limits of the university’s tolerance with a series of controversial events. As the student newspaper explained:

To date, Humanitas has presented a speech by Communist leader Gus Hall; a near-appearance by George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi party; and two showings of films. Later this year, it promises to bring evangelist Billy Graham and George Wallace, governor’s helper in Alabama.

[Notes on this excerpt: (1) Shortly before Rockwell’s speech was scheduled to start, he was arrested by the NYPD on a 1960 disorderly-conduct warrant, so he was an involuntary no-show (the ACLU sent a lawyer to defend him, something it probably wouldn’t do today); (2) the films were of the “underground” variety, and proved so popular that Humanitas decided to present “a series of risque plays” that would be “racier, dirtier, and more suggestive”; (3) Wallace was still governor of Alabama, but his term was about to end, and Alabama’s term limits would not allow him to run again. So his wife, Lurleen, ran in 1966 to succeed him and was governor-elect when this article was printed. It was generally understood that George would continue to run the state, with Lurleen as a figurehead, hence the “governor’s helper” crack. This scheme failed when poor Lurleen died of cancer during her second year in office.]

As is often the case at Columbia, grandiose student plans turned out to be more talk than action. Graham never spoke at Columbia (though he had preached a sermon there in 1957), nor did Wallace; and after Humanitas showed a few openly pornographic films, the university suppressed the group. Whatever brief popularity it may have enjoyed seems to have been mostly due to Columbia students’ fondness for Communists and dirty movies. Within a year or two, they would find more exciting ways to pass the time.

Yet there was one paragraph in the New York Times story about Rockwell’s non-appearance that made me think fondly of my alma mater:

University authorities had given their approval to the Rockwell speech in accordance with a long-standing rule permitting any recognized student group to invite any speaker, controversial or not.

Columbia has had some ups and downs with protests over the years, and it’s not very big on due process, but the university still broadly follows this policy, though students and outside agitators don’t always cooperate.

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