Academic journal article Journal of Thought

University Speaker Censorship in 1951 and Today: New McCarthyism and Community Relations

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

University Speaker Censorship in 1951 and Today: New McCarthyism and Community Relations

Article excerpt

More than a half-century after the McCarthy era, allegations of witch-hunts, blacklists, and indoctrination have returned to academia. Politicians, student groups, and David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights campaign have sought legislative control of university curricula and policy. (1) Political scrutiny of "indoctrination" has caused universities to rescind invitations to controversial speakers such as Ward Churchill and Michael Moore. Twenty-four state legislatures have introduced bills ostensibly to protect students from the liberal orthodoxy that pervades college classrooms. (2) Although the McCarthy era and today both are marked by attempts to restrict academic freedom and identify dangerous intellectuals, this paper cautions against describing contemporary events as the "new McCarthyism." (3)

The McCarthy era offers no definitive guideposts for interpreting or addressing current circumstances. (4) The limited lessons of history derive from context and consequences rather than the repetition of events. (5) The 1951 Ohio State censorship controversy adds to contemporary discussions of academic freedom by highlighting the interaction of university policy and public controversy. The anti-communist fervor and political turmoil of the early 1950s triggered local protests and the University's decision to screen all campus speakers after a controversial guest lecturer triggered local protests. But recent publications, such as the American Association of University Professors report "Academic Freedom and Outside Speakers" and Horowitz's The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, reflect ongoing struggles over political and cultural control of higher education that extend beyond a specific historical era. (6)

By illustrating the role of local and national publicity, state political intervention, and university policy, the events at Ohio State underscore the importance of avoiding both "political amnesia" in the history of higher education and superficial comparisons with McCarthyism. (7) The tentative lesson this history offers is faculty responsibility to intervene in the corporatization of higher education and deteriorating community relationships.

The Ohio State University Trustees' 1951 attempt to control the selection of campus speakers lasted only three months. The fact that a two-day visit by a progressive educator could produce heated controversy and a change in University policy speaks to a powerful confluence of political and bureaucratic interests. The board ruling would not have occurred without the joint pressure of the Governor's inquiry, hostile newspaper editorials, and letters of protest. The initial ruling, the subsequent clarifications by OSU President Bevis, and the eventual repeal of the requirement can be read as a continually shifting response to public sentiment. The changes in the President's position paralleled the spread of publicity surrounding the ruling from the supportive local press to the more critical reports that appeared later. The events at Ohio State illustrate how government intervention and negative newspaper coverage escalated a politically unpopular lecture series into an indictment of a state university.

Harold Rugg and the "Frontier Thinkers"

Harold Rugg already had a reputation for controversy when the College of Education graduate student association invited him to be the annual Boyd Bode lecturer. In the 1930s, Rugg and other Teachers College faculty such as John Childs, George Counts, and John Dewey represented the core of the social reconstructionist wing of the progressive education movement. For the reconstructionists, changing schools was crucial to transforming the outdated social structures they perceived as individualistic and profit-driven. (8) The movement's journal, The Social Frontier, became a forum for the American left intelligentsia's debates over collectivism, class conflict, and the failings of laissez-faire capitalism. …

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