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Late in the winter of 1949, Gerhart Eisler told 500 students in Emerson D what Marx thought about social change. The audience that heard the East German Communist that night was a singularly passive one; no jeers or outbursts marked the meeting as unusual. But the controversy raised by the meeting clarified Harvard's thinking in a very important way.
Tremendous pressures were put on the University to keep Eisler from speaking. Incited by radio commentator Fulton Lewis Jr., a vigorous letter campaign demanded that Harvard keep Eisler from speaking. In answer to these critics, Dean Bender pleaded the College's case. "The world is full of dangerous ideas," he wrote, "and we are both naive and stupid if we believe that the way to prepare intelligent young men to face the world is to try to protect them from such ideas while they are in college. . . . If Harvard students can be corrupted by an Eisler, Harvard College had better shut down as an educational institution."
The rule that the College developed out of the Eisler controversy was a simple one: "Any recognized student organization can hold a meeting in a Harvard building, if they can find a room available, and listen to any speaker it can persuade to come."
Over the years, the policy of the College, if somewhat vague, has been of the same tone as the "Bender Rule." Only once in recent years has the College barred a speaker of unpopular views from University buildings. And the storm the incident provoked yielded a well-learned lesson for the College. The man about whom the controversy centered was the American Communist, Earl Browder.
Early in November of 1939, Jerome D. Greene, Secretary of the Corporation, touched off the issue by refusing permission to the now defunct John Reed Society to sponsor a lecture by Earl Browder in New Lecture Hall.
Greene objected on grounds of "taste," and suggested that the Society abandon its plans "lest questions of propriety should be raised." The Reed Society hit back in a formal reply, "It had been our understanding that the selection of speakers for undergraduate organizations was not one of Mr. Greene's duties," they said.
Within twenty-four hours the Reed Club had started a petition drive to rally student support. Organization spokesmen cited the College's action in the Norman Thomas affair of 1920. Indicted under a city free speech ordinance in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., Thomas had been invited by the old Liberal Club at that time as a substitute speaker for Eugene Debs, 1920 Socialist candidate for President, who was then in jail. The College had not interferred, and on the night of October 18, Thomas had spoken at the Union.
The 1939 Browder battle grew in intensity through the week. By Friday the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Committee had added their prestige to the forces opposing the University's ban. The issue was brought to a head over the weekend when four Harvard professors, Arthur N. Holcombe, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Kirtley F. Mather, and David W. Prall protested the ruling and asked the Corporation to reconsider. The Attorney General of the United States, Frank Murphy, joined in the growing protest to the ruling.
The Corporation had reached its final decision by Monday night. The next morning, the headlines claimed, "Corporation Withholds its Permission for Browder Speech." Again the Reed Society countered with a move calculated to draw mass support. A protest meeting was called for Wednesday night, and Corliss Lamont '24, a noted socialist, was listed as a speaker. Tempers flared as Lamont compared Harvard to a "one horse mid-western college." Trotskyite Richard Pitts, President of the Harvard Socialist League, heckled the speaker. The meeting continued in confusion, with Lamont's defense of socialism drawing hisses from the audience.
Although the Browder affair left its scars on the University, a new, clearer policy toward speakers was evolving. By 1948, the invitation of Gerhart Eisler by the Harvard Young Democrats could pass almost without notice. The Democrat Club, unable to get Paul Robeson who was out campaigning for Henry Wallace, sponsored Eisler's speech here on the evening of April 26. Two students, dressed as Cossacks, interrupted Eisler's speech and strode down to the front of the auditorium. Both were ejected, as the crowd, encouraged by the performance, jeered Eisler and created general disorder.
Eisler was invited back in 1949, this time by the Reed Club. It was on this occasion that the Bender statement was made. The fireworks that had been expected after the meeting of the previous year never went off. Instead, the crowd listened quietly and the speech proceeded without incident.
Once formulated, the "Bender Rule" has guided College action consistently up to the present. Men of such diverse opinions as Howard Fast and Gerald L. K. Smith have been granted permission to speak. Despite attacks from the American Legion and feelings of vague uneasiness, the men in University Hall have allowed advocates of unpopular ideas to be heard. Tonight, the health and vigor of this attitude will receive new proof when Owen Lattimore speaks at the United Nations Council forum at New Lecture Hall.
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