Ernest Freeberg, head of the Department of History, penned an essay for the Knoxville News Sentinel examining the history of free speech on the UT campus. Freeberg noted that UT chancellor Charles Weaver’s decision in 1968 to veto a student committee’s invitation to comedian and activist Dick Gregory to speak on campus sparked the debate over students’ free speech rights.
“That decision provoked a two-year fight over free speech rights at UT,” Freeberg wrote. “Dick Gregory died Aug. 19. But the legacy of his visit to Knoxville lives on, a milestone in the development of intellectual freedom at the university. It’s a story worth remembering as we face our own controversies over campus speakers, in Tennessee and across the country. ”
The fight would eventually prompt UT students and faculty to sue, claiming the university violated their free speech rights. Famed ACLU attorney William Kunstler defended them in Knoxville federal court. The judge subsequently ruled in favor of the UT students and faculty, writing in his opinion that “censorship is the enemy of progress and freedom,” and UT had denied students their right to “receive information and ideas.”
Freeberg continues: “The real impact of Gregory’s visit came long before he set foot in Knoxville. UT’s speaker ban provoked two years of debate about the value of free speech and helped the campus work through democracy’s delicate balancing act between liberty and order.”
The full length version of Freeberg’s essay appears on the Knoxville History Project website.