Free Speech & the Modern Campus

, The Smart Set 

Our current controversies over free speech on campus actually represent the second set of battles in a culture war that erupted in the U.S. during the late 1980s and that subsided by the mid-1990s — its cessation probably due to the emergence of the World Wide Web as a vast, new forum for dissenting ideas. The openness of the web scattered and partly dissipated the hostile energies that had been building and raging in the mainstream media about political correctness for nearly a decade. However, those problems have stubbornly returned, because they were never fully or honestly addressed by university administrations or faculty the first time around. Now a new generation of college students, born in the 1990s and never exposed to open public debate over free speech, has brought its own assumptions and expectations to the conflict.

As a veteran of more than four decades of college teaching, almost entirely at art schools, my primary disappointment is with American faculty, the overwhelming majority of whom failed from the start to acknowledge the seriousness of political correctness as an academic issue and who passively permitted a swollen campus bureaucracy, empowered by intrusive federal regulation, to usurp the faculty’s historic responsibility and prerogative to shape the educational mission and to protect the free flow of ideas. The end result, I believe, is a violation of the free speech rights of students as well as faculty.

freedoms_small Free Speech & the Modern Campus

What is political correctness? As I see it, it is a predictable feature of the life cycle of modern revolutions, beginning with the French Revolution of 1789, which was inspired by the American Revolution of the prior decade but turned far more violent. A first generation of daring rebels overthrows a fossilized establishment and leaves the landscape littered with ruins. In the post-revolutionary era, the rebels begin to fight among themselves, which may lead to persecutions and assassinations. The victorious survivor then rules like the tyrants who were toppled in the first place. This is the phase of political correctness — when the vitality of the founding revolution is gone and when revolutionary principles have become merely slogans, verbal formulas enforced by apparatchiks, that is, party functionaries or administrators who kill great ideas by institutionalizing them.

What I have just sketched is the political psychobiography of the past 45 years of American university life. My premises, based on my own college experience at the dawn of the counterculture, are those of the radical Free Speech Movement that erupted at the University of California at Berkeley in the Fall of 1964, my first semester at the State University of New York at Binghamton. The Berkeley protests were led by a New York-born Italian-American, Mario Savio, who had worked the prior summer in a voter-registration drive for disenfranchised African-Americans in Mississippi, where he and two colleagues were physically attacked for their activities. When Savio tried to raise money at Berkeley for a prominent unit of the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was stopped by the university because of its official ban on political activity on campus.

The uprising at Berkeley climaxed in Savio’s fiery speech from the steps of Sproul Hall, where he denounced the university administration. Of the 4000 protestors in Sproul Plaza, 800 were arrested. That demonstration embodied the essence of 1960s activism: it challenged, rebuked, and curtailed authority in the pursuit of freedom and equality; it did not demand, as happens too often today, that authority be expanded to create special protections for groups reductively defined as weak or vulnerable or to create buffers to spare sensitive young feelings from offense. The progressive 1960s, predicated on assertive individualism and the liberation of natural energy from social controls, wanted less surveillance and paternalism, not more.

The entire political and cultural trajectory of the decades following World War II in the U.S. was a movement away from the repressions of the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union, when the House Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives searched for signs of Communist subversion in every area of American life. A conspicuous target was the Hollywood film industry, where many liberals had indeed been drawn to the Communist Party in the 1930s, before the atrocities of the Stalinist regime were known. To fend off further federal investigation, the major studios blacklisted many actors, screenwriters, and directors, some of whom, like a favorite director of mine, Joseph Losey, fled the country to find work in Europe. Pete Seeger, the leader of the politicized folk music movement whose roots were in the social activism of Appalachian coal-miners in the 1930s, was banned from performing on network TV in the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s.

There were sporadic landmark victories for free speech in the literary realm. In 1957, local police raided the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco and arrested the manager and owner, Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for selling an obscene book, Allen Ginsberg’s epic protest poem, Howl. After a long, highly publicized trial, Howl was declared not obscene, and the charges were dropped. The Grove Press publishing house, owned by Barney Rosset, played a heroic role in the battle against censorship in the U.S. In 1953, Grove Press began publishing affordable, accessible paperbacks of the voluminous banned works of the Marquis de Sade, a major thinker about sex and society at the close of the Enlightenment. In 1959, the Grove Press edition of D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, then banned in the U.S., was confiscated as obscene by the U.S. Postal Service. Rosset sued and won the case on federal appeal. In 1961, the publication by Grove Press of another banned book, Henry Miller’s 1934 novel, Tropic of Cancer, led to 60 obscenity trials in the U.S. until in 1964 it was declared not obscene and its publication permitted.

One of the supreme symbols of newly militant free speech was Lenny Bruce, who with Mort Sahl transformed stand-up comedy from its innocuous vaudevillian roots into a medium of biting social and political commentary. Bruce’s flaunting of profanity and scatology in his improvisational onstage act led to his arrest for obscenity in San Francisco in 1961, in Chicago in 1962, and in New York in 1964, where he and Howard Solomon, owner of the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, were found guilty of obscenity and sentenced to jail. Two years later, while his conviction was still under appeal, Bruce died of a drug overdose at age 40.

This steady liberalizing trend was given huge impetus by the sexual revolution, which was launched in 1959 by the marketing of the first birth control pill. In Hollywood, the puritanical studio production code, which had been adopted in the early 1930s under pressure from conservative groups like the Legion of Decency and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was gradually breaking down and was finally abandoned by the late 1960s. The new standard of sexual expression was defined by European art films, with their sophisticated scripts and frank nudity. Pop music pushed against community norms: in 1956, Elvis Presley’s hip-swiveling gyrations were cut off by the TV camera as too sexual for the Ed Sullivan Show, which was then a national institution. As late as 1967, the Ed Sullivan Show was trying to censor the song lyrics of major bands like the Doors and the Rolling Stones, who were imitating the sexual explicitness of rural and urban African-American blues. (The Stones capitulated to Sullivan, but the Doors fought back — and were never invited on his show again.) Middle-class college students in the 1960s, including women, began freely using four-letter words that had rarely been heard in polite company, except briefly during the flapper fad of the 1920s. In the early 1970s, women for the first time boldly entered theaters showing pornography and helped make huge hits out of X-rated films like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and The Devil in Miss Jones.

In short, free speech and free expression, no matter how offensive or shocking, were at the heart of the 1960s cultural revolution. Free speech was a primary weapon of the Left against the moralism and conformism of the Right. How then, we must ask, has campus Leftism in the U.S. been so transformed that it now encourage, endorses, and celebrates the suppression of ideas, including those that question its own current agenda and orthodoxy?

My conclusions are based on my personal observation as a career academic. Despite the longstanding claim by conservatives that “tenured radicals” invaded the universities in the 1970s, I maintain that no authentic 1960s radicals, except for Todd Gitlin, the president of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), entered the profession and attained success. If they entered graduate school, most of them dropped out. To enter grad school at all was in fact viewed as a sell-out. For example, during my last semester in college in 1968, I was confronted near the fountain on the quad by the leader of the campus radicals, who denounced me for my plan to attend the Yale Graduate School. “Grad school isn’t where it’s happening!” he contemptuously informed me. “And if you go anywhere, you go to Buffalo!” As it happens, I had indeed applied to and been accepted at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I would have happily worked with the psychoanalytic critic Norman Holland and the notorious Leftist critic, Leslie Fiedler, whose controversial 1960 masterwork, Love and Death in the American Novel, had had a huge influence on me. Indeed, Fiedler had just become a folk hero of the counterculture the year before, when police raided his Buffalo house and arrested him for drug possession, a disastrous incident that he would chronicle in his 1969 book, Being Busted. At any rate, I had chosen Yale because of its great library, which I sorely needed for my research, but my fellow student’s warning stung and shook me.

There can be no doubt that elite universities like the Ivy League at that period were in drastic need of reform. Their prevailing WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) style was not a hospitable climate for racial or ethnic minorities, including Jews and Italian-Americans. Medieval Anglo-Saxon was actually still a required first-year course for graduate students in English literature when I arrived at Yale in 1968. There had evidently just been a purge of gay male professors from the English department — it was rumored they had migrated up-country to all-female Smith College in Western Massachusetts. The English department had only one woman faculty member, a rather conservative medievalist. While women had been admitted to the graduate school for a century, undergraduate Yale College was still all-male and turned coeducational while I was there — which was a huge relief, because I was tired of being stared at like an exotic trespasser in the cavernous main reference room of Sterling Library. In my Anglo-Saxon class one day, the otherwise very affable young WASPy professor did a crass sexist stunt, also involving an ethnic slur against working-class Italian-Americans, that still shocks and disgusts me after all these years. We first-year students said nothing — there was no framework yet for critique or complaint.