The University Record, October 16, 2000

Columnist Lewis keynotes Academic Freedom Lecture Symposium

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

Chandler Davis (left) and Samantha Markert-Schreck, daughter of the late Clement Markert at the 10th Anniversary Symposium of the Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom. The other former faculty member honored by the annual lecture, Mark Nickerson, also is deceased. Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services
Taking a cue from a phrase well known to law students —“The law is a seamless web”— two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Lewis addressed “Freedom, The Seamless Web” as the keynote for the 10th annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.

The symposium celebrated the 10th anniversary of the lecture series dedicated to three faculty members who were suspended from the University in 1955 for refusing to give testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954. The daylong event, featuring prominent lawyers, journalists, historians and economists, took place in the Honigman Auditorium of the Law School.

Following their suspension, Chandler Davis and Mark Nickerson eventually were terminated. Clement Markert was reinstated to the faculty. All three went on to distinguished academic careers. Davis, the only one of the three still living, was present and offered remarks on his experience. Also on the scene and giving their own perspectives were Markert’s daughter, Samantha Markert-Schreck, and Nickerson’s son Stephen.

Lewis, a New York Times columnist, stated that “academic and intellectual freedom cannot be separated from freedom of thought and expression in society as a whole.” Following World War II, he continued, “when this country was enveloped in the great fear of communism, it was not just party leaders who were sent to prison, not just State Department officials who were harried by Senator Joe McCarthy. Academics went to prison for refusing to testify about their beliefs and associations. And, as I hardly need to say on this occasion, some great universities were, to put it politely, less than courageous in protecting the intellectual freedom of their faculty members.”

In our society as a whole today, Lewis said, “we are as free to say what we think as we have ever been and freer than any other people on earth. But it would be a great mistake to believe such broad freedom is unchallengeable.”

To illustrate his point, Lewis traced the history of attempts to limit free speech in the United States after the passage of the First Amendment in 1791. In 1798, the Federalist Party began playing on fears of the Jacobin terror in revolutionary France by connecting Thomas Jefferson, leader of the opposition party, with the revolution. Thus began a “paranoid strain in American politics” that, according to Lewis, follows throughout American history.

“Taking their attempt to tar the Jeffersonians a step further, the Federalist congress passed the Sedition Act designed to silence opposition newspapers in the run-up to the election of 1800. Many of the leading Jeffersonian editors were prosecuted and imprisoned under the act before it expired on Inauguration Day, 1801,” Lewis said.

Moving to the period of World War I, Lewis cited the Espionage Act of 1917, which prohibited interference with mobilization efforts. Under this legislation, said Lewis, Eugene V. Debbs, a perennial Socialist Party candidate for president, was convicted and imprisoned for referring in a speech to some jailed draft resistors. “This and many other cases prosecuted under this act were all upheld by the Supreme Court, though some dissenting opinions began to appear,” Lewis added.

First Amendment law has seen many changes over the years. “The way the Supreme Court has decided free speech cases has so much to do with the changing nature of our society.” It is more affirmative now, he said, exemplified by Justice Hugo Black in a 1959 dissenting opinion, later quoted in the famous 1964 libel case, New York Times v. Sullivan, that “it is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions.”

At present, Lewis continued, “we have a surprising new phenomenon—a transformation of attitude about free speech between the political left and right. Forces of repression have traditionally been on the right, but that has flip-flopped. An example is Kentucky’s conservative Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s support for so-called ‘soft money’ campaign contributions on the basis of the First Amendment. And there are now forces on the traditionally liberal left seeking to limit speech, especially on campuses in the form of speech codes,” Lewis said. “Speech codes hinder robust debate that should of all places take place on campuses,” Lewis maintained.

“In this country we have the luxury to believe that freedom is protected by the widest expression of beliefs. Our greatest guarantee of academic freedom is a free society,” Lewis concluded.

A book containing the first nine lectures in the series has just been published by the University of Michigan Press, edited by Academic Freedom Lecture Fund (AFLF) president Peggie Hollingsworth, with an introduction by David Halberstam. Transcripts of the symposium panels, along with the lecture by Lewis, will be available as a separate volume in the near future.

Major sponsors of the Symposium were the AFLF, the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Office of the President.