Bertrand Russell and Academic Freedom

Since today is Bertrand Russell’s birthday (he was born in 1872), I wanted to share this short segment from my dissertation on the history of academic freedom about Russell’s firing from CCNY and the first court case to mention the words “academic freedom”:


A turning point in academic freedom came in 1940. That year marked the adoption of the AAUP’s fundamental doctrine on academic freedom and tenure. But it was also the year in which famed philosopher Bertrand Russell was prevented from teaching logic at City College of New York, and the first court decision in America mentioned academic freedom.

Russell was called “a desiccated, divorced, and decadent advocate of sexual promiscuity” (Edwards, 1957, 210). Bronx Borough President James Lyons threatened to eliminate the $7.5 million appropriation for city colleges unless Russell was fired, declaring that “the colleges would either be godly colleges, American colleges, or they would be closed” (Edwards, 1957, 213). The New York State Legislature unanimously adopted a resolution asking the Board to rescind Russell’s appointment, declaring that “an advocate of barnyard morality is an unfit person to hold an important post in the educational system of our state at the expense of the taxpayers” (Edwards, 1957, 217). Charles Keegan of the City Council called Russell an “avowed Communist” and urged that board members should be dismissed if they tried to put Russell on the faculty. The Council voted 14-5 to ask the mayor to reorganize the board and appoint new members (Edwards, 1957, 250-1).

But ultimately, it would be the judicial system that demanded the firing of Russell. Jean Kay, a citizen of Brooklyn with no connection to City Colleges, filed suit declaring that “it was contrary to public policy to appoint as a teacher anyone believing in atheism” (Edwards, 1957, 219). A New York judge revoked Russell’s appointment as “an insult to the people of the City of New York” and “in effect establishing a chair of indecency” (Edwards, 1957, 221).

As would often happen in the future, academic freedom was seen as being inapplicable to sexual questions. Judge McGeehan wrote, “While this court would not interfere with any action of the board in so far as a pure question of ‘valid’ academic freedom is concerned, it will not tolerate academic freedom being used as a cloak to promote the popularization in the minds of adolescents of acts forbidden by the Penal Law” (Kay v. Board of Higher Education, 1940, 829). Nor was academic merit given any consideration. Judge McGeehan declared, “It is contended that Bertrand Russell is extraordinary. That makes him the more dangerous” (Kay v. Board of Higher Education, 1940, 829).

In his decision, Judge McGeehan denounced Russell for “his immoral character” attacking “the filth which is contained in the books” Russell had written, such as urging “temporary childless marriages” for college students (Kay v. Board of Higher Education, 1940, 826-7). Judge McGeehan argued that though he found Russell’s views on masturbation, nudity, religion and politics to be despicable, the court could not intervene for these reasons. And, although Russell endorsed the crime of adultery, this, the judge noted, was only a misdemeanor (Kay v. Board of Higher Education, 1940, 830). What ultimately justified judicial intervention was “Russell’s utterances as to the damnable felony of homosexualism, which warrants imprisonment for not more than twenty years in New York State.” Judge McGeehan quoted Russell’s writings: “It is possible that homosexual relations with other boys would not be very harmful if they were tolerated, but even then there is danger lest they should interfere with the growth of normal sexual life later on” (Kay v. Board of Higher Education, 1940, 831).

Here, Russell was expressing a homophobic view, that homosexual behavior by boys should not be tolerated, because it may be harmful and it would interfere with “normal” sexual development. However, Russell (in words not quoted by the judge) had condemned the laws punishing homosexual behavior. It is not clear if the judge simply misread Russell and assumed that he was open-minded toward homosexuality, or if the judge felt that Russell’s condemnation of homosexuality was insufficiently harsh.

The Russell case showed that sexuality cannot be segregated from political forms of academic freedom. Any kind of subversive thinking, whether political or sexual, was merged together in the crusades against academic freedom. One interesting aspect of the Russell case is the way that homosexuality has been forgotten. Today, when Russell’s case is mentioned, it is typically asserted that Russell was fired for discussing “trial marriages” or adultery (Johnson, 1994). Even at the time of Russell’s firing, the topic of homosexuality was avoided. A commentator in the Yale Law Review defended Russell, declaring: “The statutes which outlaw rape and abduction seek to protect chaste females under eighteen. As report has it there are at City College no chaste females…there are no females at all” because “Women are barred from the School of Liberal Arts, where Dr. Russell would have delivered his lectures…” (Hamilton, 1941, 785).

Judge McGeehan’s decision was ultimately never challenged. Mayor La Guardia simply struck the lectureship from the budget without saying a word, and prevented an appeal of the decision, refusing to allow the Board to get their own counsel. Courts prohibited Russell himself from appealing the decision (Edwards, 1957, 255).

To the academic world, the Russell case was a deep embarrassment because it involved an internationally admired scholar. John Dewey noted, “As Americans, we can only blush with shame for this scar on our repute for fair play” (Edwards, 1957, 258). The AAUP’s Statement of Principles was in part academia’s revenge for the insult to Russell, and its force for self-protection.

The firing of a prominent scholar like Russell showed how vulnerable academic freedom was in America. The Russell case also foreshadowed more anti-subversive crusades. The investigation of Russell was among the early anti-subversive campaigns that would reign supreme during the era of McCarthyism. In response to the controversy over Russell, the Rapp-Coudert Committee was formed in New York, which would serve as a forerunner for McCarthyism. Although there had been previous anti-subversive legislative investigations, the Rapp-Coudert Committee was the first that led to mass firings. By 1942, 40 professors were fired or did not have their contracts renewed because of accused links to Communism or refusing to divulge their views (Ollman, 1984, 45). As Marjorie Heins noted, “The Rapp-Coudert investigation made it dangerous for scholars of history, literature, sociology, science, or religion to write or teach about Marxism, socialism, the Soviet Union, revolution, and indeed social change of any kind” (Heins, 2013, 115).

The Rapp-Coudert Committee revealed an early hint of what the McCarthy Era would bring to academia: a relentless attack on radicals in academia. It also revealed the powerlessness of the AAUP and other defenders of academic freedom in the face of a political crusade.

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