This 1942 Movie Contains A Great Lesson About Academic Freedom & Free Speech

The Male Animal & Henry Fonda’s Speech On Academic Freedom & Free Speech

Henry Fonda in The Male Animal (1942)

When one reads or hears about the fear of debate and the airing of opposing viewpoints at colleges, it is indicative of a disheartening and sickening trend towards academic totalitarianism.

The issue is not a new one.

The following dialogue is from the 1942 film The Male Animal and describes exactly the quandary we are facing today.

In the film Henry Fonda is a professor (Tommy Turner) and Eugene Pallette is a trustee (Ed Keller) at a college. The two are engaged in a battle over what can be said in the classroom. The climax occurs when Fonda makes the following speech at the risk of losing his job.

Fonda –  Now the class will come to order, please. Thank you.

Last Friday, if you remember, I happened to mention that I wanted to read you three letters written by men whose profession was not literature, but who had something sincere to say.

Once I declared that harmless intention, the world began to shake. Great institutions, trembled and football players descended upon me and my wife.

I realized then that I was doing something important.

The men whose letters I picked were Abraham Lincoln, General Sherman and Bartolomeo, Vanzetti. Originally, I chose Vanzetti to show that even broken English can sometimes be very moving and eloquent.

Pallette – This isn’t just about broken English, it’s more than that.

Fonda – Yes, sir. You’ve made it more than that.

Pallette – Well, Vanzetti was an anarchist. He was convicted….

Fonda – (interrupting) Thomas De Quincy was an opium eater, and Edgar Allan Poe was a drunkard. And Karl Marks was a communist. I’m not advocating opium or alcohol or communism or anarchy. And if I were, you’d have a perfect right to remove me. This was supposed to be a class in English composition. And I am saying that I have a right to read any great writings regardless of the personal habits or political opinions of their authors.

Pallette – And I still say it’s a dangerous thing to bring up.

Fonda – No, sir. It’s a dangerous thing to keep down and if you want to make that political, all right, I’m fighting for a teacher’s rights and a student’s rights and the rights of everybody in this land.

You can’t suppress ideas, Mr. Keller, just because you don’t like them. Nobody can. Not in this country. Not yet.

This is not about Vanzetti. It’s, it’s not a question of whether he was guilty or innocent. It’s about us. This is a university, we’re teachers, and it’s our business to be impartial, to bring what light we can into this muddled world to try to follow truth. And if I can’t read this letter today, if it must be suppressed before you even heard what it is, tomorrow, none of us will be able to read anything or teach anything except what Edward K. Keller and the trustees permit us to teach. And you know where that leads and where it has led in other places.

We hold the fortress of free thought and free speech in this place this afternoon. And if we surrender to prejudice and dictation, were cowards. I have no idea what started all this. I don’t know quite how I got into this fight. I’m not a politician. I have nothing personally to gain by reading this letter. And there’s little more that I can lose. I only know I have to read it if I can find it.

<audience laughs>.

Oh yes. Here it is. I guess my wife must have put it there.

I can only say that I’m afraid this may disappoint many of you. It’s not at all inflammatory or seditious. It might even make some of you feel a little silly. At least I hope so. Vanzetti wrote this in April, 1927, just after he was condemned to die. It has been printed in newspapers in this book in many places. But if you should destroy every printed copy, it would still endure in the language because a great many literary people know it by heart.

Below is the scene from the film. Watching it has potency, but I believe the scene is beautifully written and the words take precedence over the visuals.

The original play the film is based upon was written by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent. The screenplay is by brothers Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein (who also wrote Casablanca) and Stephen Morehouse Avery. People forget that actors just deliver lines. The speech Fonda gives are the words of the writers. The Epstein brothers and Avery are responsible for the emphatic message.

Academic Silence Today

It is unnecessary to go into the details of invited speakers at colleges being uninvited or shouted down by protestors. There are also educators who are coerced into signing allegiance documents agreeing to viewpoints they do not believe in or support. Professors are compelled to not bring up “uncomfortable” or dissenting viewpoints on subjects like race, gender,and climate change not just in class, but on social media platforms or even worse; in supposedly private situations that then are then shared publicly without permission.

Unless you’re living in a vacuum, it is something you come across on a daily basis. This misguided behavior of stifling the expression of ideas is pervading throughout society with frightening consequences.

Banned speech, banned books, banned people – we tread on dangerous ground when lives and livelihoods are threatened because individuals dare to vocalize or write something that may upset somebody.

It’s the sort of thinking and behavior you see in China, North Korea, Russia, Myanmar, Afghanistan or any country based upon a theocracy (i.e. most Muslim nations). The difference between the United States and those exemplars of stifling free speech is that here transgressors will be “cancelled.” Those other places saying the wrong thing will put you in jail or have you condemned to death.

But maybe the United States is headed towards a more draconian state where ideas and words are actual crimes. If you don’t think so, what about the nonsensical term “hate speech” which is currently not a crime, but constantly bandied about as being subject to criminal indictment. There are many fascists who would like to make hate speech equivalent with “hate crime,” which is prosecutable.

Fonda’s speech in defense of academic freedom is one that should be reiterated. It must be broadcast, tweeted, shared and read – not just every college but every school in America.

Ideas and words can be dangerous – especially when they are suppressed.

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