Speaker Ban Still Divides

Waterway Odyssey
July 2005

Free speech debate continues today

By Maximilian Longley


The following is an opinion piece by Maximilian Longley, responding to a recently released documentary and a new book on the Speaker Ban, the controversy that shook the UNC system of colleges in the 1960s and contributed to the national debate on free speech on campus. The issue has come full circle, from attempts by the legislature to control free speech on campus 40 years ago, to faculty-endorsed speech codes that exist today in our colleges and universities.


In 1963, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Speaker Ban law, an effort to prevent communists from appearing on state-owned college and university property. The law was struck down by a court decision in 1968, but the legacy of the era it spawned continues to be the subject of intense discussion today.

Beyond the Wall, a documentary on the Speaker Ban era, produced and directed by UNC-Chapel Hill film professor Gorham Hap Kindem, was released last April. The film focuses on the Speaker Ban law as a right-wing assault on freedom during the anti-communist obsession of the Cold War, comparing the era to the current war on terror.

A book on the Speaker Ban, William Billingsley's Communists on Campus: Race, Politics and the Public University in Sixties North Carolina, was issued by the University of Georgia Press in 1999, after being considered and rejected by UNC Press. Communists on Campus is critical of UNC for supposedly caving in to the censorship principles behind the Speaker Ban before it was repudiated in court.

One issue posed by Beyond the Wall and Communists on Campus is the genesis of the Speaker Ban. Considering the near total lack of legislative debate before the law was passed suddenly in June 1963, this is a difficult question to answer with precision, but the book and the documentary focus on one clear causal factor. There were many civil-rights demonstrations going on in 1963, and while these demonstrations were not known to be communist-inspired, some legislators tended to see communism behind racial unrest. Nor did it help, from the point of view of legislators, that some UNC professors and students were involved with the demonstrations.

Beyond the Wall and Communists on Campus choose the racial factor as an explanation for the passage of the Speaker Ban. Author Billingsley explains the Speaker Ban as racism disguised in the garb of anti-communism. In this context, however, Billingsley says: The presence of a small but vocal group of students identifying themselves as Marxist-Leninists committed to a socialist agenda was essential to the re-enactment of a Red Scare episode in North Carolina . This refers to the few students at UNC-Chapel Hill who belonged to the Progressive Labor (PL) organization. PL was a group that split off from the Communist Party after rejecting their former CP comrades for being too conservative and pro-capitalist. The small PL group on campus attracted attention by its invitations to radical speakers, including PL's leader Milton Rosen.

Some interesting details about PL's activities in North Carolina are not found in Billingsley's account. Progressive Labor was trying to move into North Carolina to take over from African-American militant Robert Williams, who had fought segregation in his hometown of Monroe , near Charlotte (also Jesse Helms' hometown). When Williams fled the country in the wake of a 1961 race riot, he moved to Cuba and China and produced revolutionary propaganda aimed at black Americans.

Progressive Laborapparently without Williams' approvaltried to pick up where Williams left off. PL activists moved to Monroe , and some of them turned up elsewhere in North Carolina . PL activist Alice Jerome joined the faculty of Greensboro 's private Bennett College , but was fired in 1962 when her former Communist Party ties were discovered.

North Carolina didn't appear in danger from the tiny number of communist subversives operating in 1963. But the existence of real-live Marxist revolutionaries in North Carolina wasn't a figment of anyone's paranoid racist imagination.

Another key theme of the book Communists on Campus, repeated by some of the people interviewed in Beyond the Wall, is that UNC administrators, such as William Friday, president of the UNC system, didn't do enough to defend the principles of free expression against the assault represented by the Speaker Ban. Communists on Campus, and some of the subjects interviewed in Beyond the Wall, suggest that the UNC administration tried to prove to Speaker Ban supporters that they could be trusted to censor controversial speakers, thereby earning the right to have the Speaker Ban relaxed.

The suggestion that UNC actually wanted to censor controversial speakers does not fit the evidence. The UNC administration sought to implement the Speaker Ban because they thought they had to enforce statutes passed by the legislature until they were declared unconstitutional. At the same time, in public statements as well as behind the scenes, UNC officials opposed the Speaker Ban and defended the right of students to hear what communists and other extremists had to say.

In place of the Speaker Ban, the UNC administration advocated an open-forum policy that would provide that recognized student groups could invite speakers of all political backgrounds. The only constraints were that the speaker could be required to answer questions from the audience; the meeting might have to be presided over by a faculty moderator; and the speaker might be balanced out with speakers of contrary views.

Instead of placating the legislature, UNC's proposal aggravated the solons. Key members of the Britt Commission, the legislative panel appointed in 1965 to find a way out of the Speaker Ban controversy, thought the open-forum policy provided too much free speech.

It took someone from outside UNC to suggest a compromise acceptable to legislators. Leo Jenkins was President of East Carolina College in Greenville , then a separate institution from UNC with its own board of trustees (today, East Carolina University is part of the UNC system). Jenkins persuaded his trustees to propose a speaker policy to replace the Speaker Ban. This proposed policy declared that communists and other extremist speakers should only appear on campus when it would serve the interests of education, not the interests of America 's enemies. State Senator (and future US Senator) Robert Morgan, who had previously appeared before the Britt Commission on behalf of the American Legion to support the Speaker Ban, now appeared in his capacity as chairman of the East Carolina trustees, reluctantly conceding that a policy like ECC's could be the basis for a Speaker Ban compromise. Both Beyond the Wall and Communists on Campus leave out ECC's role.

The Britt Commission devised a compromise on the Speaker Ban, adopted in November 1965. The General Assembly passed a law permitting speakers in the previously banned categories to speak on campus, but subject to regulations by the various boards of trustees. In exchange, boards of trusteesincluding UNC's boardapproved a policy statement drawn up by the commission stating that those previously banned by the Speaker Ban law, plus anyone who advocated undemocratic ideologies, should appear on campus only infrequently, and then only when it would serve the advantage of education.

In a letter, UNC-CH Chancellor Paul Sharp described the 1965 amendment as about a 70 percent victory. Under the original version of the Speaker Ban, legitimate scientific and cultural speakers, such as geneticist J. B. S. Haldane and playwright Arthur Miller, had been banned for their radical activities. The 1965 changes put an end to these sorts of problems. Although the watered-down Speaker Ban still seemed to envision college authorities acting as censors, the UNC administration decided to hold fast to its open-forum principles, on the grounds that communist and other extremist speakers would serve educational purposes as defined in the new policy.

Chancellor John Caldwell of NC State allowed a communist (Gus Hall) and a Fifth-Amendment pleader (Klansman Robert Jones) to be invited to campus (they declined). UNC-Chapel Hill faculty were informed that they didn't need administrative clearance to invite suspect speakers; only students would have to have their proposed invitations vetted by the administration. Although all undemocratic speakers were suspect under the policy formulated by the Britt Commission in 1965, student groups only had to receive clearance for speakers who came within the narrower terms of the 1963 legislationknown communists, seditionists and Fifth-Amendment pleaders. Many suspect speakers spoke on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus prior to the Speaker Ban's invalidation in 1968, mostly on invitation from the faculty.


Aptheker and Wilkinson

In early 1966, the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society invited Herbert Aptheker and Frank Wilkinson to speak at UNC-Chapel Hill. Moderate student groups, who had been looking for a speaker to sponsor in defiance of the Speaker Ban, signed on to SDS's invitations, although they weren't certain these were the best choices to use to stand up to the ban. Aptheker, an avowed communist, was just getting back from a trip to North Vietnam with American peace activists. He told American audiences about this trip, denouncing the American war effort even more vehemently than peace advocates. Wilkinson was an activist who had taken the Fifth Amendment when a California legislative committee asked him about Communist Party membership. Leading Tar Heel politicians wanted the two censored, and FBI files on record at the National Archives suggest that even the FBI was pressuring UNC to ban them. The FBI kept informed about the Aptheker and Wilkinson appearances, and anonymously distributed a pamphlet criticizing Aptheker to administrators and student leaders at UNC and Duke (Aptheker and Wilkinson spoke at Duke, a private university not subject to the Speaker Ban).

Despite the pressure from so many sources, President Friday and other UNC administrators tried to persuade the University's trustees to let Aptheker and Wilkinson speak on campus. Aptheker was to speak as part of a panel with UNC professors, an effort at UNC to go back to the open-forum policy that had met with skepticism from the Britt Commission. The trustees rejected the administration's proposal to have Aptheker and Wilkinson appear, and then they voted to let the chancellors at each UNC campus decide on the suitability of student-sponsored speakers.

The administration interpreted the trustees' ambiguous actions to mean that Aptheker and Wilkinson should be banned. The two speakers addressed students over the wall dividing the campus from town property. This was the only time between the amending of the Speaker Ban in 1965 and its abolition by a federal court in 1968 that university authorities banned speakers at Chapel Hill .

After the Aptheker/Wilkinson affair, a lawsuit by students and the banned speakers resulted in a three-judge federal court ruling in 1968 declaring the Speaker Ban unconstitutional. The judges said the law and its implementing policies were unconstitutionally vague, and that the clause regarding Fifth-Amendment pleaders penalized people for exercising their constitutional rights. At the same time, language in the opinion strongly suggested that the University ought to adopt a better-drafted speaker policy that limited the ability of extremists to speak on campus.

Far from taking the hint dropped by the judges, UNC took the court decision as an opportunity to re-assert its preferred open-forum policy. Immediately after the decision, a UNC official invoked the ruling as a reason not to censor novelist Han Suyin, despite administrators' (possibly exaggerated) belief that the author was a communist (Han Suyin is the pen name of Dr. Elisabeth Comber, a novelist of Chinese-Belgian heritage who praised the Mao Tse-Tung regime in the 1960s).

To replace the Speaker Ban, the UNC administration convinced the trustees to pass a new visiting speaker policy. The policy's preambular language contained anticommunist rhetoric, leading Billingsley to see it as another example of University repression. However, the operative part of the speaker policy followed open-forum principles. UNC's branch of the American Association of University Professors, that had vigorously opposed censorship of campus speakers, concluded in December of 1968: Any student group is permitted to schedule any speaker it invites to the campus in any building not otherwise in use. There is no censorship in the use of any building by any campus group for speaking purposes. There were limits on students' scheduling singers, musicians or comedians at the two main campus auditoriums, but these restrictions were not intentionally designed to discriminate against politically suspect entertainers.

UNC's administration, then, may be largely cleared of complicity in the Speaker Ban. To find examples of UNC officials enthusiastically practicing censorship, look to the modern era of politically correct repression, not to the time when University officials were fighting vigorously against the Speaker Ban.