Nat Hentoff: I Was an Extremist for the N.Y. Times
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
October 22, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 43
I was an extremist for the N.Y. Times
By Nat Hentoff
On October 14, Representative Richard Ichord, chairman of the House Internal Security Committee, released a committee report listing 65 speakers at college campuses during the past two school years. It follows from the chairman's foreword to the report that the speakers listed are among "the radical rhetoricians of the New Left promoting violence and encouraging the destruction of our system of government."
On October 15, the New York Times generously distributed the report for the House Internal Security Committee -- listing all of the names and in addition, listing all the organizations with which the Internal Security Committee said each speaker is affiliated. The Times did this without checking with any of those on the list and without conducting an independent check. The Times, therefore, did more for the House Internal Security Committee than Representative Ichord could ever have hoped for. The Times provided the Committee's report with a respectable cover. More of which later.
My name is on that list.
According to the House Internal Security Committee -- and the New York Times -- I am affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party, Students for a Democratic Society, and Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
I am affiliated with none of those groups.
My point here is to show the culpability of the New York Times and of many college president in docilely becoming agents of the House Internal Security Committee.
Background: As has been noted previously in this column, Ichord sent a questionnaire last summer to 179 colleges and universities. From the text of that letter: "As Chairman of the House Committee on Internal Security, I am writing to solicit your cooperation in the furnishing of information with regard to honorariums paid to all guest speakers other than academicians and lecturers who appeared in connection with courses of instruction. As directed by the House of Representatives, our Committee is charged with the responsibility of making inquiry into those organizations, who by their activities would effect changes in our Government by force, violence, or other unlawful means. Preliminary data available indicates that guest speakers representing such organizations have made numerous appearances on many college and university campuses, and have received honorariums which could be of significance in funding their activities. The means by which such organizations are financed is a matter which is under inquiry by this Committee..."
Ichord went on to ask for a separate sheet on each guest speaker on campus from September, 1968, to May, 1970.
The reaction in the press and on television to this obvious attempt to reduce dissent and violate First Amendment rights was practically non-existent.
A member of the House Internal Security Committee -- Louis Stokes of Cleveland -- did react. In a letter, dated July 13, that went to every member of the House (but to my knowledge, received no coverage in the press and certainly not in the Times), Stokes wrote: "I believe the Committee's actions are both unlawful and unwise. Nothing I can detect in the newly constituted mandate of the Committee would authorize an investigation into the ways our institutions of higher learning choose to dispense the funds they have set aside for guest speakers on their campuses. Even if such a mandate could possibly be rationalized, it could not conceivably be construed to encompass such an arbitrary fishing-expedition into the financial affairs of all speakers, including, no doubt, you. (There are no assurances of confidentiality in the letter.)
"Moreover," Stokes continued, "the very existence of such documents can unquestionably have a chilling effect on the exercise of those First Amendment freedoms which should flourish most abundantly in an atmosphere of higher learning. Finally, when such an investigation becomes public, as it inevitably will, it can only serve to further exacerbate existing tension between administrators and students (who often choose the speakers themselves), and to give further credence to the claim of governmental repression now being used for their own purposes by those who truly do wish to divide our society."
In the letter, Stokes told his colleagues that he was writing to the one school in the Cleveland area which the Internal Security Committee had contacted. "Should you wish to do likewise," he added, "a complete list of recipient institutions is on file in my office and can be made available to you..."
According to Michael Davis, Stokes's legislative assistant, with whom I talked last Friday, some 35 Congressmen called to find out which schools in their district were on the list, and some dozen Congressmen mentioned the letter to Stokes on the House floor. Davis believes that a number of Congressmen did write letters to colleges and universities in their districts, but he doesn't know how many. I'd like to know if any New York Congressmen did.
Stokes wrote the comptroller of Case Western University in Cleveland that he considered the Internal Security Committee's questionnaire "both beyond the scope of the Congressional mandate which delineates the Committee's powers, and a direct incursion on academic freedom. Consequently, it is my opinion that you are free to ignore this communication with impunity."
According to the House Internal Security Committee report released last week, Case Western nonetheless did respond to the Committee. There is no specific indication of the manner or content of the response.
In August, the American Civil Liberties Union, considering the Committee's action "an infringement of academic freedom and a violation of the spirit and letter of the Constitution," urged the colleges and universities on the Committee's list not to comply with requests for names of guest speakers and the amount of their fees. Should that refusal lead to the House Internal Security Committee issuing subpoenas for college records, the ACLU volunteered to supply legal support and assistance to any college requesting it.
Of the 179 colleges and universities contacted by the Internal Security Committee, 95 returned the questionnaire. According to the committee, only seven refused to answer as a matter of principle.
In an October 13 letter to college presidents, Aryeh Neier, executive director of the ACLU, said of the Internal Security Committee's report: "It is hard to conceive of a more brazen attack on the principle of freedom of speech. The record of this Committee and its predecessor, the House Un-American Activities Committee, makes this latest assault on free speech a matter of little surprise. What is surprising, and also saddening, is the willingness of the nation's colleges to aid and abet the Committee in its dirty work." (Emphasis is mine -- N.H.)
Neier ended his letter to the college presidents: "Today, the ACLU filed suit in federal court challenging the Committee's attempt to bar college audiences from hearing views the Committee dislikes. This lawsuit should not have been necessary. It would have been better by far if the nation's colleges had resisted this attack on the freedom of their students, faculties, and guest speakers. We can only hope that the lessons of this episode will at least serve to guide the future actions of colleges if government should again attempt to intrude where it has no business. Again we call upon you to resist government encroachment on the First Amendment freedom of your campus communities and we renew our proffer of assistance."
I am a plaintiff in that ACLU suit. The intent of the suit was to declare the action of the Committee unconstitutional and to enjoin the Committee from filing, printing, publishing, disseminating, or disclosing the contents of the report. The listing, we said, would be an "unwarranted categorizing of political speech in an attempt to inhibit and deter free speech." We also claimed that the report, if disseminated, would punish those listed "for their views by exposing them to the harassment normally associate with blacklisting."
I didn't write that, by the way, and as an avocational semanticist, tempered by the black liberation movement, I would not have used the term "blacklisting."
...In its story, the Washington Post mentioned only three of the names on the list and did not cite any of the alleged affiliations of even these three.
The New York Times, however, not only listed all of us but included every single one of the organizations with which the Committee claimed we were affiliated.
The Times story had hardly any of the background I've supplied here -- and nothing of the statements of Louis Stokes and the ACLU last summer. And the story, written by David E. Rosenbaum, included a paragraph which began: "Among this not generally considered extremists were..." Five names followed. To the quick reader, and the not-so-quick reader, the rest of us, therefore, are "generally considered extremists."
I am one of the rest and I owe this designation of "extremist" to the New York Times.
At no point, during all of this, was I contacted by the House Internal Security Committee or by the New York Times.
On Thursday, I spoke to Arthur Gelb of the Times in New York and to Max Frankel at the Times in Washington. I made the same point to both. Ichord's releasing of the list -- eve in violation of a court order -- made the list public. I could thereby understand why the Times printed the full list. I would not have, but then I wouldn't have printed those wire-tap conversations of alleged Mafia figures which the Times delights in running even though it knows damn well those transcripts are legally "tainted," to say the least.
But, I told Gelb and Frankel, when the Times goes on to publish all the alleged affiliations without checking with those of us on the list and without making an independent check, the Times -- both morally and in its self-professed tradition of "responsible journalism" -- has failed its own principles.
Gelb immediately agreed I was right. So did Frankel, but Frankel also said, "It wasn't sloppiness tha led to the publication of the list with the affiliations. It was boredom. We didn't think anybody would take this seriously."
With my name now in the dossiers of every Red Squad in the country, as well as in God knows how many federal files, and with the Times' story on the desks of hundreds of college presidents and administrators, I would like to tell Mr. Frankel that while I am sorry anyone is ever bored, that's one hell of a rationalization for subjecting me and everybody else on the list to consequences we can't possibly calculate because you never know what the results of such a listing are. And for how long they hang on. If I lose writing gigs and lecture gigs and television gigs, I can't prove that the publication of the list -- particularly under the imprint of the New York Times -- was the cause. But since most people believe what they read in the Times, I can reasonably speculate that this action by the Times is most certainly going to harm me and everybody else on the list.
A radical friend said to me over the weekend: "I didn't know you belonged to those organizations." He believes the Times.
A reporter in the Times Washington bureau said to me: "Well, we were going to check out the affiliations for the next day.
I was told I could make a statement to the Times. I didn't write it down so I can only give you what I remember of it: "The publication of the House Internal Security's list is a clear indication that the Committee is trying to intimidate college administrators from allowing dissenting speakers on campus. The Committee is also plainly mis-stating facts in my case and, I am sure, in that of many others on the list. I am not affiliated with any of the three organizations list beside my name. I am aware that the Committee has its own amorphous, Kafka-like criteria of 'affiliation,' but by no reasonable definition of that term can I be said to be affiliated with those organizations. That the New York Times printed the list and the alleged affiliations without checking with those on the list and without making an independent check is irresponsible and damaging journalism. The fundamental point, however, is that representatives of all organizations on the list have full First Amendment rights to speak anywhere."
A Times reporter later called and asked me if I could think of any reason why those three organizations were listed alongside my name. I told him of the fight I was involved in to get the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Labor Party back on the ballot after Lindsay and Aurelio had gotten them thrown off so that Lindsay could have a clear independent line in last November's election. As for SDS, I'm too old to have been a member but I did subscribe to New Left Notes -- as I subscribe to many publications. As for Spring Mobe, while I support and have supported many movements to end the war, I've never been to a Spring Mobe meeting nor am I part of its staff. If I had to take a quiz right now, I would be hard put to distinguish between it and the other Mobes. I may well have signed a Mobe petition and may well again. I think I have probably signed several hundred petitions in the last 10 years and will continue to do so.
This is the story the Times printed October 16: "WASHINGTON, October 15 -- Three persons who were listed by the House Internal Security Committee, in a report released yesterday, as being members of or as having 'participated in the activities of' radical organizations protested today the inclusion of their names on the list."
Is that all I protested?
The story continues: "Nat Hentoff, the author and critic, said that his connection with the Socialist Workers party was that he had written an article criticizing the party's exclusion from the ballot in the 1969 New York mayoralty election. He said that his only affiliation with the Students for a Democratic Society was his subscription to to the organization's newspaper and that his connection with the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam was that he had 'probably' signed a petition 'somewhere along the line.'
"'By any reasonable definition, I have no affiliation with any of those three groups,' he said."
Nothing of my criticism of the Committee's intent. Nothing of my criticism of the Times as a distributing agent for the Committee. Nothing of my point that anyone, affiliated with any organization, has the right to speak anywhere.
The Times story ended: "Daniel Watts, the editor of Liberator magazine in New York, said, 'I am not a member of the Socialist Workers Party and I never have been. I'm not affiliated with it in any way.'
"Charles Garry, a San Francisco lawyer, said that he had never been a member of the Communist party and that his only affiliation with the Black Panther party was that he was the Panthers' lawyer."
I don't know if the Times called Watts and Garry, or if they called the Times. I do know that my truncated statement would not have been printed if I had not called Gelb and Frankel. What about the others on the list? Has the Times contacted them? Hardly seems so from that story.
And look at the way the story is written. It legitimatizes the Committee's report and again gives respectable cover to that report. By omitting everything I said except my pointing out the Committee's false statements about me, the Times makes it look as if that's all I'm protesting. Not the very compiling and printing of the report. Not the Times' own indefensible carelessness. The Times makes it appear that all the three of us want to do is get off the hook.
But the basic point, again, is that I am for the right of everybody on that list and every organization on that list to speak. That's the crux of this issue. And the Times still doesn't understand how badly it handled this story. It runs a wholly inadequate "correction" which the Times doesn't have the minimal grace to indicates as a correction. The way it appears, the piece is just another news story.
Well, so much for this first round with the House Internal Security Committee. I remain a plaintiff in the ACLU suit and we intend to pursue the suit to get the principle stated. There's nothing that can be done about the Times' complicity in the Internal Security Committee's dirty work except by the people at the Times. And as for the colleges and universities, I would hope that students and faculty will find out whether their administrations are being intimidated by this list.
Footnote: I'd like to Thank Ed Newman of WNBC-TV and Bill Friedman of Time magazine. They are the only media people so far to ask me about the list and my inclusion in it. I haven't seen Times' story but Newman, although limited as to air time, asked exactly the key, logical questions which enabled me to say essentially what I have said here.
This incident, hardly yet closed, ought to alert everyone of you. I have some access to media; and I have this column. But what are you going to do if you get on a list -- if you know about it? What is your Congressman doing now about this list and the lists to come?
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]