Ask the UTimes: Is free speech a new issue on campus?


Question: With Pitt faculty worried that a new anti-discrimination law will have them policing hate speech, was there another time when free speech on campus was a big worry?

You might think that the 1960s and early 1970s were the most contentious on campus when it comes to free speech. After all, the Free Speech Movement had been founded at Berkeley in 1964, when nearly 800 students were arrested at a sit-in protesting campus restrictions on speech. And Pitt certainly saw its share of free-speech demonstrations.

As the Pittsburgh Press chronicled under a Feb. 7, 1969, headline “300 Protest ‘FBI State’ at Pitt,” a free-speech meeting in the Cathedral of Learning had students and faculty “jamm(ing) the center of the Commons Room, sitting on the marble floor, standing on chairs and tables and leaning from the balconies that ring the room.”

A cherry bomb and hecklers didn’t manage to deter the crowd, and a professor of philosophy claimed the University was using the FBI against students in “private matters,” although he apparently gave no details or proof — at least none that the paper mentioned. At the end, the group demanded in a statement that Pitt officially ban the use of “student informers, paid to photograph and report on individuals exercising their lawful rights to free speech, subverting the university as a center for free and open discussion.”

But the focus for Berkeley and for Pitt in that era was political speech, not hate speech, and political speech has historically been the most contentious academic freedom issue for Pitt, from the 1920s onward.

Decades before the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s ginned up the fear of communism invading our shores, Pitt’s administration feared the ideas born in the Russian revolution of the 1917 and the growing power of the labor movement in the 1920s.

Pitt actually began kicking out students and their clubs, and even firing a professor or two.

The administration under Chancellor John G. Bowman started slowly, by removing posters for a November 1928 talk on “Economic Conflict” at the Liberal Club.

By May 1929, Pitt fired a graduate assistant in philosophy, Frederick E. Woltman, and expelled two students for their activities in favor of improving conditions for American laborers — and for their associations with lefty ideas.

“Chancellor Bowman broke the silence which he had maintained since Dr. Harry Elmer Barnes (who was from outside Pitt) and members of the Liberal Club of students who had gathered to hear him were driven from the campus April 22,” the local press reported that year. “The university head issued a statement, which sought to justify the drastic action taken. The statement charged that the Liberal Club had degenerated into an agency of propaganda. It insinuated that the president of the club was a Communist. It made no attempt to explain the dismissal of Woltman.”

Woltman had made his name as secretary of the local branch of the ACLU. The press described him as “a leader in the fight against the evils of the Pennsylvania coal and iron police system and (prominent in) criticizing the conduct of the state police during the recent coal strike.”

He had been arrested here at least once before, in February 1929, when police raided a meeting of the International Labor Defense Council, at which Woltman was speaking, but he was never charged with a crime and was released when the city law department remembered the First Amendment existed.

Pitt then fired an economics professor in 1930 for similar activities, later reinstating him. Bowman’s moves drew national attention that year, thanks to a 1930 article in the American Mercury by another former Pitt professor, Raymond F. Howes of the English department, who said the faculty firings had been done to keep happy the industrialists and politicians who had funded Bowman’s big dream, beginning in 1921, of building the Cathedral of Learning. Howes also noted that 17 Pitt professors had once been a part of the local ACLU, but only eight of them remained on campus.

The bad publicity didn’t stop Bowman, who banned the Liberal Club’s replacement, the Social Science Club, in 1931. “As nearly as I can understand it,” Bowman said, “it’s only the Liberal Club under another name. … We put them out once and we haven’t changed our minds about it.”

While political speech at Pitt remained contentious at least through the late 1940s, by 1961 Chancellor Edward H. Litchfield was rising to the defense of a history professor, Robert G. Colodny, for his pro-Cuba views.

Alas, some in the local media were only too happy to step in, with the Press editorializing for a de facto defunding of Pitt, thanks to the chancellor’s free-speech views: “Dr. Colodny has an unquestioned right, guaranteed by the Constitution, to hold whatever views he wishes on any subject. But there is no provision of the Constitution or any law which guarantees him the right to propagandize his views while holding the sensitive position of teaching young people who may well become the future leaders of the nation … we believe the taxpayers who help support the University of Pittsburgh and the citizens who send their young to be educated there have a right to know the publicly-expressed beliefs of those responsible for the education of Pitt students.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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