Campus Activism and Free Speech at Syracuse University

Hedricks Chapel, Syracuse University, Wikimedia Commons.

During the fall 2019 semester, Syracuse University’s (SU) campus in upstate New York was rocked by several racist incidents including racist vandalism across campus, the harassment of Black and Asian students, and the online circulation of a white supremacist manifesto. Critics directly criticized the University Chancellor’s belated response to student demands for action. Since taking leadership in 2014, Chancellor Kent Syverud has cut programs and scholarships—many aimed toward students of color—and over two-hundred staff positions, in a move that reflects the increasingly “corporatized and militarized” structure that universities are modeling. A multi-racial coalition of students organized to force the administration to address the incidents, creating a list of demands and a petition calling for Syverud’s resignation. Syverud signed the demands with revisions, but as of yet has not resigned. As university’s adopt corporate structures—leading to personnel cuts and the elimination of student programs—they have also begun to employ methods to penalize the free speech of students and faculty. On campuses where academic capitalism reigns, faculty are expected to remain apolitical and offer “decontextualized information” while students become less politically inclined and academically motivated. The corporatization of education, along with limitations on free speech for faculty and students, is akin to the Cold War attacks on dissent and political mobilization. Fittingly, an SU student started one of the most important battlefields in the fight for free speech during the Cold War.

On March 8, 1949, SU student, veteran, and son of Polish immigrants, Irving Feiner, stood on a corner in downtown Syracuse and proceeded to announce an upcoming speech by O. John Rogge, a former US Attorney and lawyer for the Trenton Six hosted by the American Labor Party (ALP). The Trenton Six case involved six Black men arrested for killing a furniture store owner even though none of the men were identified by the only witness, only three men were seen running from the scene not six, and the New Jersey police were accused of coercing confessions from all but one of the accused. After their arrests, Bessie Mitchell—sister of Collis English, one of the accused—mobilized immediately and her efforts helped push the NAACP and the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) to organize in the men’s defense. Both the CRC and ALP had links to the Communist Party and that prompted local Syracuse officials to oppose Rogge’s speech, which was meant to take place at Madison High School. When the school board director banned the use of the school, Feiner took to the streets to announce its new location at a nearby hotel.

A crowd of 75 to 80 people congregated around Feiner while he made his announcement at a spot frequented by other speakers. Allegedly during the course of his talk, he called the mayor a “champagne sipping bum,” and the American Legion, who opposed the speech, “Nazi Gestapo Agents.” Police also claimed that he exhorted the Black people in the crowd to take up arms and march to city hall to demand equal rights, which led some in the crowd to shout and boo. It was alleged in the legal case against Feiner that when he began to talk about dismantling Jim Crow and demanding equal rights, that he advocated armed struggle. It was then, according to the judge, that he was arrested for encouraging “those people” toward violence and held on an exorbitant $1000 bail.

Fellow students involved in the event went to the mayor’s office to demand Feiner’s release, which he refused. The ALP held a rally to support him and local civil rights leader Beverley Andrews made a speech where she took issue with the use of “those people” to describe Black America. She argued that “we…are not those people” but Americans fighting against “Jim Crow slums…against lynchers and poll taxers.” She also intentionally repeated what Feiner was accused of saying, that Black America had to “rise up” and fight, for freedom, peace, jobs, and decent housing.1

At his bench trial the judge offered Feiner a deal, he would not have to serve any time if he left the ALP and quit the Young Progressives of America (YPA), the youth wing of the Progressive Party that unsuccessfully ran Henry Wallace for President in 1948. Feiner refused, was sentenced to 30 days in jail and expelled from Syracuse University, or “severed” as it was officially called for “setting race against race.” The University initially refused to give him credit for that semester. Fellow students met with the Chancellor demanding that Feiner be allowed back in and keep his credit, the Chancellor only agreed to him receiving credit. Upon Feiner’s conviction, students organized a protest outside the courthouse where they were attacked by local American Legion members while the police watched.2

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined the legal fight and led Feiner’s appeal with attorney Arthur Garfield Hays at the helm. Hays was an ACLU co-founder who worked on the Sacco and Vanzetti case and was also known as an anti-anti-communist. The ACLU issued a statement that argued the local police exceeded their authority in Feiner’s arrest and that his subsequent trial and sentence were politically motivated. The ALP also made it clear that Feiner’s arrest was because he called for an end to racism and police abuse.3 The county court, the state court of appeals, and finally the Supreme Court upheld Feiner’s conviction. The majority Supreme Court decision framed the conviction around the “clear and present danger” test claiming Feiner’s free speech rights did not usurp police rights to preserve the peace. The dissenting opinion written by Justice Hugo Black has become famous as the basis of the “heckler’s veto,” which privileges the right to free speech if the crowd does not agree with it. The term was not coined until 1965 when Harry Kalven Jr. published a book defending civil rights advocates’ freedom of speech. The heart of the issue was how could one demand civil rights publicly if the crowd’s opinions were considered legally more important over the civil rights advocates right to demand the end to racism.

The Communist Party noted that in upholding his conviction, the majority justices took issue with Feiner encouraging Black Americans to rise up against white America; Chief Justice Vinson specifically cited Feiner’s alleged call for an armed uprising of Black Americans. On the same day as the Feiner case was decided, the Court decided two other free speech cases that upheld the right of religious institutions to hold meetings in public without permits. Roy Gutterman, director of SU’s Free Speech center, argues that Feiner’s politics were a likely motivation behind the Supreme Court’s decision considering that one of the other cases involved an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic minister whose speech ended in a violent confrontation. Justice Black wrote in his dissent that the decision was reminiscent of totalitarianism and made a “mockery” of the free speech guarantees in both the First and Fourteenth Amendments.4

Feiner completed the remainder of his 30-day sentence, and upon his release, the ALP hosted a dinner for him attended by Vito Marcantonio, socialist Congressman and New York ALP director, and Bessie Mitchell. Mitchell’s own efforts to free her brother and the other Trenton Six were only partially successful. Four of the defendants were acquitted, one accepted a plea deal and was paroled in 1954. Mitchell’s brother English was ill from his time serving in the US military. He accepted a plea deal but died of a heart attack in prison in 1952. Despite the legal harassment, Feiner remained a radical the rest of his life, not shying away from being called a communist, defending free speech, and pushing for progressive causes. The Feiner decision upholding public order over freedom of speech would eventually be overturned by later decisions.5

Syracuse University’s decision to expel Feiner for his speech and arrest is indicative of the fear engendered by Cold War anti-communist hysteria. But today’s students are in an equally disturbing environment as their own position, particularly for students from underrepresented populations, are under threat from constant budget cuts, limited financial aid, and rising tuition rates. The shift toward a neoliberal corporate structure is turning students into consumers, faculty labor into a commodity, while institutional priorities focus on revenue generation. The question going forward is how can free speech and political mobilization survive in that environment?

  1.  George Sheldrick, “Syracuse ALP Fights Attack on Free Assembly,” Daily Worker, March 17, 1949, 6.
  2.  “ALP Demands full probe of arrest of Syracuse U. Student,” Daily Worker, May 12, 1949, 5; “Concession won by Feiner Rally,” Daily Worker, May 17, 1949, 4; “State Court Upholds Frameup of Student,” Daily Worker, March 3, 1950, 3; “Bail Won for Syracuse Student,” Daily Worker, May 11, 1949, 5.
  3.  “ACLU to aid student jailed in Syracuse,” Daily Worker, May 26, 1949, 5.
  4.  “High Court Upholds Arrest of Student for Open Air Speech,” Daily Worker, January 16, 1951, 5.
  5.  “ALP to honor student jailed in fight on Jim Crow,” Daily Worker, March 27, 1951, 5.
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Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.