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The Cancellation of Bertrand Russell

Eight decades later, the issues raised by the Russell case—the rights to free speech and academic freedom—have still not been settled.

· 9 min read
The Cancellation of Bertrand Russell
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Bertrand Russell is well known as a philosopher and mathematician. But few know that during his lifetime, he was cancelled—to use the contemporary term—by the New York judiciary and by mid-twentieth-century religious conservatives. Both those conservatives today who seek to ban books and regulate curricula and those progressives who wish to censor everyone who disagrees with them would do well to reflect on the Bertrand Russell case.

In February 1940, Russell was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the College of the City of New York by unanimous vote of the Board of Higher Education of New York City. (He was assigned to teach three courses with unwieldy names: logic and its relation to science, mathematics, and philosophy; problems in the foundations of mathematics; and relations of the pure to applied sciences and the reciprocal influence of metaphysics and scientific theories.) But within scarcely a month, Justice John E. McGeehan of the New York Supreme Court (in New York State, this is the designation of the trial court) ordered the Board to revoke Russell’s appointment, ruling that the appointment “adversely affects public health, safety, and morals” and would “aid, abet, or encourage … conduct tending to a violation of penal law.” A year later, in 1941, philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey noted that, although the Russell case was closed, “the issue underlying it is no more settled than the Dred Scott case [which ruled that no African American could ever become a US citizen] settled the slavery issue.” Eight decades later, the issues raised by the Russell case—the rights to free speech and academic freedom—have still not been settled.

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Russell was born into a prominent aristocratic family in 1872, in the Welsh village of Trellech. He studied first mathematics and later philosophy at Cambridge University. In June 1916, he was fined for writing a pamphlet outlining his pacifist views and in February 1918, he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment under the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act for publicly lecturing in favor of peace with Germany (activities that also led him to be dismissed from his fellowship at Trinity College, though he was reinstated the following year). While in prison, Russell wrote his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919) and began work on The Analysis of Mind (1921).

In the face of Soviet and Nazi atrocities, Russell’s pacifism became more moderate. But he remained broadly anti-war and was sympathetic to many of the liberal causes of the day. He was also dismissive of religion, describing himself as both an agnostic and an atheist. In March 1927, he gave a talk on the topic “Why I am not a Christian,” which he published in essay form later that year. His political and religious views alone would probably have been sufficient to raise the ire of New York’s conservatives—but he had also written a book challenging Victorian notions of morality regarding sex and marriage: Marriage and Morals (1929). His personal sexual history was also somewhat scandalous: by 1940, Russell had been married three times and there were widespread rumors of multiple extramarital affairs along the way.

By the time Russell was appointed Professor of Philosophy by the College of the City of New York, he was among the world’s leading intellectuals. He had lectured at Oxford, Harvard, the Universities of Peking, Upsala, Copenhagen, and Barcelona, and the Sorbonne. In addition to his Cambridge fellowship, he had held positions at the London School of Economics, the University of Chicago, and the University of California at Los Angeles. He had already authored dozens of books and received awards from the Royal Society, Columbia University, the London Mathematical Society, and the Reale Accademia dei Lincei, among many others. But his pacifism, atheism, and allegedly libertine sexual views made his presence at the college offensive to some.

When Russell’s appointment was announced, the Episcopal bishop William T. Manning told the press that the philosopher was “a recognized propagandist against religion and morality … who specifically defends adultery.” Other objections to Russell soon followed. Charles Tuttle, one of Manning’s congregants and a member of the Board of Higher Education, attempted to persuade the Board to revoke the appointment. A Mrs. Jean Kay, described only as “a Brooklyn taxpayer” filed a lawsuit, asking the New York Supreme Court to vacate Russell’s appointment on the grounds that he was an alien [i.e., a foreigner] and an advocate of sexual immorality, who posed a threat to young women.

Kay was represented by Joseph Goldstein, a former city magistrate of the Tammany Hall era. Goldstein’s brief describes Russell as “lecherous, salacious, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrow-minded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fiber.” The brief asserts that Russell “is not a philosopher in the accepted meaning of the word” but rather a “sophist” who employs “cunning contrivances, tricks, and devices, and by mere quibbling … puts forth fallacious arguments that are not supported by sound reasoning.” What Russell describes as philosophy, argues Goldstein, is “just cheap, tawdry, worn out, patched up fetishes and propositions, devices for the purpose of misleading the people.”

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Justice McGeehan, who was backed by the Bronx Democratic political machine, had previously tried to have a portrait of Martin Luther removed from a courthouse mural illustrating legal history. Upon hearing the accusations against Russell, the judge declared, “If I find that these books sustain the allegations of the petition, I will give the Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals something to think about.” Shortly thereafter—without having heard the testimony of any witnesses for the defense or having reviewed any evidence other than excerpts from Russell’s books, McGeehan gave his opinion that the philosopher’s work ran contrary to “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”

In addition to ruling that the Russell appointment would “adversely affect public health, safety and morals,” McGeehan concluded that the Board of Higher Education could not appoint a foreigner to a teaching post in New York, nor could anyone be appointed to such a post without first passing a competitive examination—despite the fact that numerous non-Americans already taught at New York’s four colleges, none of whose faculty members had been subjected to a competency exam before they were hired. McGeehan further concluded that the Board had in effect established a “chair of indecency” while revealing “moral standards lower than common decency requires.” “[A]cademic freedom,” declared the justice, “is freedom to do good, not freedom to teach evil.”

Although the Board of Higher Education was divided over McGeehan’s ruling, a narrow majority voted to appeal the decision, taking a principled stand against the city administration. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a self-proclaimed reformist, attempted to render the controversy moot by proposing to cut the funding for Russell’s position—even though the mayor had no authority to do so under New York law. The mayor’s corporation counsel, W. C. Chanler, declined to appeal the ruling because he feared that “the religious and moral controversies” would blind the appellate court to the legal principles at issue.

Nonetheless the Board, represented pro bono by the firm of Root, Clark, Buckner, and Ballantine, sought the trial court’s permission to appeal. McGeehan denied the motion, but the Board appealed all the same. The Appellate Division dismissed the appeal. Russell had not been made a party to the original lawsuit. Through his lawyer, Osmond K. Fraenkel, a director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Russell made various petitions to intervene. They were all denied.

The New York Times editorial board argued that Russell should “have had the wisdom to retire from the appointment as soon as its harmful effects became evident.” Russell replied in a letter to the paper that to do so would have been “cowardly and selfish,” since “the principles of toleration and free speech were at stake.” The ruling, argued Russell, created a precedent for allowing people to “drive out of public office individuals whose opinions, race, or nationality they find repugnant.”

Russell’s case had become a casus belli for many in the academy. Most of his academic colleagues took his side. Unlike today, colleges and universities of Russell’s era embraced professors of widely divergent views. They did not have any administrative departments devoted to policing expression in order to prevent people from voicing unorthodox ideas or causing student discomfort. Many leading mathematicians—including Albert Einstein, Oswald Veblen, Harlow Shapley, and Edward Kasner—came to Russell’s defense, as did the nation’s leading philosophers, such as Ashley Montagu, Curt John Decasse, Sidney Hook, Ralph Perry, John Randall, Morris Cohen, and Arthur Lovejoy. None of them agreed with Russell on all points of philosophy, but they all spoke up for freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth.

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Presidents of leading institutions of higher education including Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago, William Neilson of Smith College, Harry Gideonse of Brooklyn College, Frank Graham of the University of North Carolina, and Mildred McAfee of Wellesley College expressed their dismay at McGeehan’s decision and at the failure of the New York courts to defend academic freedom. In a letter to the New York Times, Harry Chase, Chancellor of New York University, wrote that “a blow has been struck at the security and intellectual independence of every faculty member in every public college and university in the United States.” Similar concerns were expressed by presidents and past presidents of Phi Beta Kappa, the American Mathematical Association, the American Sociological Association, the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Association of University Professors.

Russell also drew support from outside the academy. New York Herald Tribune columnist Dorothy Thompson called Russell “a twentieth-century Socrates” and described the affair as “the attempt to destroy the professional life of a distinguished scholar because he voices opinions which are, in fact, the actual practices of a part of our most respected population.” Thompson knew of what she wrote. In 1934, she was expelled from Germany on the direct orders of Adolph Hitler. In 1940, while the Russell case was underway, she was forced to leave the Herald Tribune for the New York Post because Tribune publisher Ogden Reid objected to the fact that she had supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in the recent presidential election.

But Russell’s supporters were no match for his antagonists. The Baptist clergyman I. R. Wall brought a suit demanding Russell’s dismissal from his ongoing teaching duties at the University of California at Los Angeles. Thomas Dorgan, a Democratic politician in Massachusetts, demanded that Harvard University rescind its appointment of Russell as the 1940 William James Lecturer in Philosophy. The California lawsuit was dismissed, and Harvard’s president and fellows found it “in the best interests of the University” to reaffirm Russell’s appointment—but they failed to use the occasion to voice a full-throated defense of Russell’s academic freedom. Among Harvard’s supporters and alumni there were, no doubt, many who disapproved of Russell’s work.

That the judge’s order to rescind Bertrand Russell’s appointment to the faculty of the College of the City of New York was allowed to stand was a travesty. Yet today, many professors are still censored and cancelled for similar breaches of prevailing orthodoxies. Then, it was unorthodox opinions about sexuality and war that were likely to arouse people’s ire. Today, it is unorthodox views about race and gender that have doomed many academic careers. In the eight decades since the Russell case, we have yet to fully embrace the unfettered pursuit of truth in our universities. Indeed, given the prevalence of speech codes enforced by burgeoning university bureaucracies, it seems we have regressed. The Bertrand Russell case should be a cautionary tale. We forget our history at our own peril.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the philosopher Richard Montague as one of Bertrand Russell's supporters. In fact, the person in question was Ashley Montagu.

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