Two Academic Freedom Cases at the U of I Revisited

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The CCA, originally called White Citizens Councils, was a white segregationist/supremacist organization

Late last year, the University of Illinois Press published Dangerous Ideas on Campus by Matthew Ehrlich. It is an excellent book on two professors at the U of I, one of whom was fired, while the other was not. The issue involved both freedom of speech generally and academic freedom that professors—and their professional organization, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—claim is theirs.

Leo Koch

The fired professor was Leo Koch. He was fired because on March 18, 1960 he wrote a letter to the Daily Illini in which he said: “with modern contraceptives and medical advice readily available at the nearest drugstore, or at least a family physician, there is no valid reason why sexual intercourse should not be condoned among those sufficiently mature to engage in it without social consequences and without violating their own codes of morality and ethics.” He signed the letter as an assistant professor of biology, implying that his position was not just a layperson’s, but also one of a biological scientist discussing a less repressive and healthier sex code than that existing in 1960. Indeed, as Matthew Ehrlich observes, nothing that Koch wrote went beyond what could be found in the 1948 and 1953 Kinsey Reports done by professional psychologists. Nevertheless, Koch was terminated before his three-year contract, in what was then called the Division of General Studies, stipulated.

Leo Koch (University of Illinois Archives)

I became personally involved in the case. I had transferred to the Urbana campus after doing two and a half years of undergraduate work at the U of I at Navy Pier, the precursor of the present UIC campus. I took a course called Comparative Religions from philosophy professor Harry Tiebout. It was a large lecture course on the first floor of Gregory Hall. Tiebout invited Leo Koch, an atheist, to address the course. I, and many of the students, found Koch to be interesting and provocative, as well as entertaining.

I was shocked and incensed when I learned that he had been fired. My very first demonstration was when I joined Tiebout, students, and others in carrying a casket with the words “Academic Freedom” over to the front of the University YMCA for “burial.” We were forbidden by the university administration from doing it on university property. We were also forbidden from carrying any banner regarding academic freedom in a university-approved parade down Green Street. Any student violating these edicts was threatened with dismissal, just like Koch was dismissed for his words. I graduated and went back to Chicago, but continued to try to overturn the firing. I wrote a lengthy letter to a member of the board of trustees and I tried to get the media in Chicago to take up the case and see the injustice in it. My one big success in that was an invitation to appear on the very popular Jack Eigen interview radio show. It was all for naught. The one good thing that happened is that the AAUP, after a lengthy investigation, put the U of I on its list of violators of academic freedom in 1963.

Backstory

But to some of Koch’s powerful enemies this case was not just about free speech or academic freedom. Perhaps the most powerful was Ira H. Latimer, a former communist who switched to a virulent anti-communism. He had graduated from the U of I law school, but was refused admittance to the Illinois Bar on the basis of character and fitness. In March, 1960, Latimer, who had a daughter at the U of I, circulated about 2,000 pamphlets to parents of students, politicians,

residents of Champaign-Urbana, and university administrators. Koch’s letter was on the first page. On the remaining three pages he argued that Koch’s letter was part of “the standard operating procedure of the Communist conspiracy which is to demoralize a nation as a necessary preliminary to taking it over.” He told the readers of his pamphlet that a proposed bond issue of $195 million to fund more facilities at the university was being considered in Springfield. Did they want that money to be given to the university for the use of professors like Koch? With the threat of losing the bond issue, University of Illinois President David Dodds Henry fired Professor Koch.

One of my favorite professors as an undergraduate at Illinois was Professor David Danelski, who taught constitutional law. He saw the injustice in the firing and agreed, along with an ACLU lawyer, to represent Koch in an appeal to the courts. The board of trustees was furious that a university faculty member would defend Koch against the university. Danelski, who was untenured, was informed by the chair of the political science department that he had no future at the U of I. Danelski became one in a series of professors at the U of I who were either forced out or quit, often because they would not sign anti-subversive loyalty oaths imposed by the state legislature. Danelski had to make do with a professorship at Stanford University.

The Olivers

Two other characters were involved in an interesting way. They were U of I Classics Professor Revilo Oliver and his wife, Grace. Oliver was a widely known and widely published scholar in his area of classics. He thought that people of color were inferior to white people, and used vile language to characterize them. He felt the same way about Jews. He denied the Holocaust and claimed that the Nazis were defending superior white European values. In short, he was a racist, antisemitic, Nazi sympathizer.

Even before the Koch letter, Latimer had reached out to Revilo and Grace Oliver to help identify campus groups and faculty who they suspected of being communist. Grace was willing to work with him.

But what about Revilo’s own writings and speeches? One of his speeches in Galesberg sufficiently distressed a newspaper publisher and the school superintendent that they contacted the university administration questioning his fitness to be a faculty member. Ultimately, the university administration determined that it could do nothing, for two reasons. First, unlike Koch, he was tenured. Second, there was no evidence that Oliver’s political ideas had any effect on his teaching of classics.

Criteria for Punishing Speech

Over the years, there have been two criteria used in judging whether academics have violated free speech protections sufficiently that they can be punished. The first is on-campus vs. off-campus speech. In the Koch case, it was off-campus, because the Daily Illini is supposed to be independent of the university. He did espouse his atheism, which many on the Right then associated with communism, but he was invited to do so in a course on religion, and he was not fired for that anyway. In the Oliver case, the speech was clearly off-campus.

The second criterion is the quality of the speech. Is it so dangerous, so intemperate, so vile, that it indicates a person’s character to be unfit to be in academia? From Latimer’s twisted conspiratorial point of view, Koch’s speech was like that. And “evil” communists were at the time forbidden by state law from even speaking on campus. But, again, that was irrelevant to the decision in Koch’s case. It was all about money. Keeping Koch for one more year with the risk of losing the bond issue was just not worth it to President Henry.

In a follow-up article, I will look at how the university got off of the AAUP censure list, as well as two subsequent cases of punishment of U of I faculty for their speech.

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