On February 26, 1940, the Board of Higher Education of New York City appointed British philosopher, logician, essayist, and social critic Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) to a Philosophy chair at the College of the City of New York to teach courses in mathematics and logic. As soon as the announcement became public, William Manning, a bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church, sent a letter to the New York Times denouncing Russell as a recognized propagandist against both religion and morality. This letter prompted strong opposition against the appointment, voiced particularly by organized conservative religious and patriotic groups. Many academics, students, liberal clergy, and civic groups jumped to defend Russell with pronouncements for freedom of speech and against censorship. The Committee on Cultural Freedom, for instance, stated that "whatever his views on marriage, divorce, and birth control, Mr. Russell has the same right to hold them as have his opponents theirs. His critics should meet him in the open and fair play of intellectual discussion and scientific analysis. They have no right to silence him by preventing him from teaching" (cited in Dykhuizen 1973:305).
The debate moved to the courts when a mother filed a suit against the Board of Higher Education requesting the annulment of the appointment. The legal argument was that Russell was a foreigner, and aliens were not eligible for civil service jobs unless they proved their expertise in a competitive examination--something that the college failed to do. The court case against Russell also included 'moral' arguments, accusing his books of being "lecherous, salacious, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, atheistic, irreverent, narrow-minded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fiber" (cited in Dykhuizen 1973:20). A month later, in spite of the fact that great philosophers like Whitehead, Montague, Ducasse, and Dewey defended the appointment and praised Russell's academic and moral qualifications, the judge favored the plaintiff, and rescinded Russell's contract on the ground that his writings menaced the public health, safety, and morals of the community. The court ruling went even further, stating that the appointment constituted a "chair of indecency, " and that it was "an insult to the people of New York." The court's order was unsuccessfully appealed, and Russell was not allowed to teach.
One year later, John Dewey and Horace M. Kallen edited The Bertrand Russell Case, a volume of works on several aspects of the case that took place the previous year, and discussed its social implications. In a chapter suggestively entitled, Social realities vs. police court fictions, Dewey showed how Russell's writings were taken out of context during the trial, and contended against authoritarianism and censorship, advocating the need for public academic discussion, even on topics of social morals where taboos are very strong.
This was not the first time in his life that Bertrand Russell had been rejected by a higher education institution. In 1916 he had been fined 110 pounds and dismissed from Trinity College (Cambridge) in connection with anti-war protests. Two years later, at the end of the WWI, he had been imprisoned for six months for participating in anti-war protests. This would not be his last time in prison for his pacifist stances. In 1961, three years after founding the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, he was in jail for one week in connection with anti-nuclear protests. Russell was never sympathetic towards wars: "patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons, " he said (for more quotes from Bertrand Russell, click here).
In 1950, ten years after he was disallowed to teach in New York, Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Dykhuizen, G. (1973). The life and mind of John Dewey. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
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