The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.
In 1967, amid the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, and all the other social and cultural turbulence facing America, a battle for academic freedom was waged in Fullerton City Hall.
The conflict began when a 24-year old graduate student at Cal State Fullerton, Terry Gordon, directed and put on a play by Michael McClure called "The Beard". Michael McClure, an iconic figure in the Beat Generation, wrote numerous poems, plays, and novels that dealt with the social realities and problems of 20th century America. "The Beard" is a about a fictional encounter in heaven between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow, which culminates in a simulated act of oral sex (not actual oral sex). At that time, "oral copulation" was a felony in the state of California.
Although the showing of "The Beard" was a private performance, some members of the local press got word of it, and got in, and ran headlines like "Lewd, Smut-Ridden Play Given at Cal State Fullerton." This issue caught the attention of conservative local politicians. Historian Lawrence de Graaf writes, "Seizing an opportunity for publicity in an upcoming election year, politicians from Orange County joined the attacks." A "Special Senate Committee on Pornographic Plays" was created and they subpoenaed Terry Gordon, his professor Edwin Duerr, CSUF president Langsdorf, and many others.
The proceedings took place in the fall of 1967 in Fullerton City Hall. The investigating senators included John G. Schmitz, a member of the John Birch Society, a group famous for opposing civil rights legislation and for their anti-communist zeal. The entire transcript of these hearings was recorded and published by the Senate of California. I found a copy of it in a special exhibit on "Banned and Challenged Books" in the CSUF library.
I felt like I was reading the script of a brilliant legal thriller. It reminded me a little of the play "Inherit the Wind" about the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, which was also about academic freedom. I don't have the time or patience to reproduce the entire transcript here (its about 200 pages), but here are some excerpts. Don't worry, this intense story has a happy ending. I am seriously considering writing a play about this whole thing.
Anyway, it's fall 1967 in Fullerton, CA. The sun is shining, the wind is blowing, oral copulation is a felony, and people have gathered at City Hall to determine the future of academic freedom at a public university…
The Chairman: The first witness will be Mr. William Drake, editor of the Yorba Linda Star. Would you care to tell us generally what you saw when you witnessed the production of The Beard at the Fullerton College [at that time CSUF was called California State College at Fullerton]?
Mr. Drake: We witnessed the entire play, the dirty four-letter words, and with the final conclusion of the oral sex act. And we were, of course, very disappointed that we had witnessed this thing in a tax-supported school…
Senator Kennick: Mr Drake, did you say you witnessed an abnormal sex act at the play?
Mr. Drake: I witnessed the sex act as presented in the play.
Senator Kennick: Were they not simulated?
Mr. Drake: They could be and they could not be…
Senator Richardson: [Reading] It says, "moving upward, and went absolutely as far as he could go…Her body was moving, etc, and she was making quite a bit of moaning noises," it states here. And indicated possible sexual enjoyment and eventually the achievement of sexual climax, etc…boy, this is rough stuff to read. Is this what transpired?
Mr. Drake: Yes.
Chairman: I would like to call an eyewitness requested by the college, Mr. Charles Leonard Ford [Charles Leonard Ford had taught drama at Santa Ana College for 12 years]
Senator Kennick: From your point of view, what is accomplished by the production of the play? You say it has some value?
Charles Ford: Well, the play is really not much different than many other plays that are on the public market at this point.
Senator Kennick: Well can we distinguish between the public market and a tax-supported campus before we start?
Charles Ford: I don't think there is a difference, Senator. It seems to me that the college is also part of the public. It's part of the world.
[CSU Chancellor Glenn S. Dumke takes the stand]
Senator Richardson: If they [students and teachers putting on experimental theater] are a tiny minority, why can't the intelligent majority like yourself and the other people get rid of them?
Chancellor Dumke: Well, one of the problems we face in academics, I think, is the same problem that people face out on the streets and in the cities. We do have constitutional protections. We do have academic due process.
Senator Schmitz: I would not like to take the action that I think we are being force into. [He is suggesting removing state funding from the college]
[Dr. Roger Dittman, professor of Civics, is called to the stand]
Chairman: Did you have a presentation to make?
Dr. Dittman: Nothing formally. I would just like to speak extemporaneously about what I saw…during the play, which I thought, first of all, was very well performed. The play gives you quite a lot to think about.
Senator Richardson: What did it give you to think about?
Dr. Dittman: I think there are several things that the play meant...I was reminded of Dante's Divine Comedy.
Senator Richardson: What part of the play reminded you of Dante's Divine Comedy?
Dr. Dittman: The play took place in heaven.
Senator Richardson: It did?
Senator Schmitz: Dr. Dittman, does this connote heaven to you? Did it give this impression to you?
Dr. Dittman: Well, let's say it connotes heaven more closely than harp strumming does.
Senator Schmitz: My analogy would be to a stag party or a Tiajuana exhibition, it came a lot closer, but you and I viewed it differently. I didn't see it, I just read the book. And I suppose you can read into those things all you want but my question was, I was just curious about the button you're wearing there. I can't read it.
Dr. Dittman: It says I'm registered to vote. I'm registered in the Peace and Freedom Party.
Senator Richardson: Do you believe that there are things that should not be shown on campus?
Dr. Dittman: Well, I think our greatest feelings are in the things we don't say. As a matter of fact, I think these hearings are probably having that kind of effect.
Senator Richardson: What should't we say on the campus?
Dr. Dittman: Well, I think we shouldn't say things that compel people to immediate action before they can think. I think all other kinds of speech should be allowed. If people can reflect on what has been said, so they have some opportunity to evaluate and make their own decision based upon accumulation of a wide exposure of ideas and opinions, I think all these kinds of speeches which do not require immediate action should be…
Senator Richardson: In other words, doctor, you are saying that anything goes, pretty much?
Dr. Dittman: Yes, I think that's what our Constitution means.
Senator Richardson: Might I ask, is there any type of sex act that is put into a play you would think improper to show on a college tax-supported campus?
Dr. Dittman: Well, what I consider to be obscene is not sex, but violence, killing, napalm.
Senator Richardson: Or senate investigations?
Dr. Dittman: But sex, I think, should be considered to be rather an expression of affection and a more healthy attitude toward sex.
Senator Schmitz: Are you saying in a long way that there is no possible sex act which should be excluded from a play on a college campus?
Dr. Dittman: As society's mores change, things which are capable of being presented will change. And we are undergoing some kind of moral revolution in this country. There's a generation gap which is probably being manifested here.
[Wayne Devorak, who played the role of Billy the Kid, is called to the stand.]
Senator Richardson: I think we could agree that there was a great deal of what would be referred to properly today as vulgarity…in the play itself. Does this add substantially to the mood of the play, or what was it for?
Mr. Devorak: This is one of the points of the play because playwrights don't use language, you know, just off the top of their heads. This language was necessary to the development of the characters because it's a part of their problem as people.
Senator Richardson: You say these characters are extremely vulgar characters?
Mr. Devorak: Yes, they are.
Senator Richardson: As an actor, were you trying to portray a very vulgar character?
Mr. Devorak: I was trying to project a human being with a definite conflict.
[Marion Stanek, who played the role of Jean Harlow, is called to the stand]
Senator Kennick: Do you have a feeling that you might have been misled by people much older than you are who should have portrayed much better judgement than we could expect from you?
Ms. Stanek: No.
Senator Kennick: You think that their judgement was very fine in leading you into this part?
Ms. Stanek: They didn't lead me into the part. I willingly accepted.
Senator Kennick: They suggested that you accept?
Ms. Stanek: No.
Senator Kennick: They prepared the vehicle for you to accept?
Ms. Stanek: No, no, they didn't. I willingly accepted to do the role.
Senator Kennick: You don't think you were ill advised?
Ms. Stanek: No, I do not.
Senator Richardson: Miss Stanek, you stated that there were sociological and psychological things to be gained from this particular play. Could you clarify that a bit? In what manner? How?
Ms. Stanek: I can tell you how I approached the play as the character Harlow. Our society has put Harlow as a sex symbol type of thing, a woman who lives in a fantasy world. We started off, Billy the Kid and Harlow, as two equals, and he was trying to get me to go to him or that I should try to get him to come to me. It's the same little game that is found in dating with boys and girls. The girl is trying to not do anything that the man says and she goes through all the tricks of a woman of femininity, emotion, crying, flirting, arguing, to get him to come to her, emasculating the man, in other words.
Senator Richardson: Do you think that this could be projected without the use of the language or do you feel that the language is a very important part of it?
Ms. Stanek: The language is [important] because I know for a fact that Harlow did use this language, and it's used because when she does use it, it's the only way, a masculine way for her to get at the man. And he, whenever he used the language, she stopped talking because he was breaking her down. He was getting on her level and she didn't want that.
Senator Richardson: Well, do you think it could have, well, no, I'll discontinue that line of questioning.
[President Langsdorf is called to the stand, and he delivers the following statement]:
President Langsdorf: The responsible conduct of higher education is not an easy thing. It requires exploration of ideas of all sorts, many very unpopular and sometimes risky for the faculty who do so. Yet our free society's life and future depend on such continued challenging and testing. This is called academic freedom; it has constitutional protection. To limit the right to explore and challenge would soon erode all our freedoms.
[Applause from audience]
[Edwin Duerr, the drama teacher who approved the play, takes the stand]
Senator Schmitz: Mr. Duerr, what educational value did you feel this play was going to bring forth?
Mr. Duerr: The primary benefit from doing The Beard is to do a different kind of play, a poetic play. To do the kind of play that is in the mainstream of American drama, not a 1910 play. Those are the values.
Senator Schmitz: What is your definition of mainstream?
Mr. Duerr: Well, I would say the plays that are being done in the theater in this country and this world are mainstream.
Senator Schmitz: Would it include plays that have had the police close them up and then are being appealed in court and so forth?
Mr. Duerr: Yes.
Senator Schmitz: This would be part of the mainstream?
Mr. Duerr: Yes. These are being written today by men living today writing about today's problems.
Senator Schmitz: Mr. Duerr, would you like to run a political campaign against me making this the only issue?
Mr. Duerr: I'd have to think about it.
Senator Schmitz: I'd love to have it.
Mr. Duerr: I'd have to think about it.
Senator Schmitz: I would love to have that. I would love to have this as the only issue in running for reelection. You see, you don't have to run for reelection.
Mr. Duerr: I run for reelection in a sense every year.
Senator Kennick: Most of us are ordinary people. When we get in proximity to plays of this sort, it's like getting close to fantasyland over here. We don't quite know where we are. Would you tell me what the benefits of the play are? What would you have said to me if you wanted me to attend this play? How would you explain the value?
Mr. Duerr: I think I would say it is saying, and this is only my interpretation, that somehow, and this hearing may be a demonstration of this fact, that we have an obsession with sex. Our society has an obsession with sex. And I think some of us who are over 24 are more obsessed with it than the students. Do you follow me, sir? And this is what this man is trying to say: Let's not make sex guilty. It is a normal, human act like eating or swimming. In other words, what hangup does America have with sex? I think, in the long run, I could do more to end dropouts, to end all these things that are happening, if people could face these things and not make them guilty. That's what the playwright is trying to do.
Senator Kennick: If the community had knowledge that you were putting on this play, the newspaper had announced it and the newspaper had run a couple of paragraphs with the dialogue, do you think the community might have been upset?
Mr. Duerr: I'm not sure that being upset is wrong. Plays should upset people. That's one of the prerogatives of a play, one of the rights of a play, to shake people up.
Senator Kennick: You fellows live in a world that is a strange one to me.
Mr. Duerr: We live in today's world only.
Senator Kennick: It's a very, very strange world.
Mr. Duerr: It's today's world.
Senator Kennick: I'm not sure of anything after talking to you educators.
Mr. Duerr: You said you don't know much about drama.
Senator Kennick: I don't.
Mr. Duerr: And yet you're making judgements about drama.
Senator Kennick: I don't know anything about drama, but I know a certain amount of dirt when I see it.
Mr. Duerr: Well that could be in the mind of the beholder.
Senator Kennick: Could be. Do you think your judgement in this matter was strictly good?
Mr. Duerr: I'll rest my 40 years experience on my judgement in this case.
Senator Kennick: I've fought for your salary increases for 10 years. I'm not too sure I'm right.
Mr. Duerr: If we in the college have to have our plays picked for us…
Senator Kennick: No one's saying that.
Mr. Duerr: You're implying that. If you don't like it...
Senator Kennick: No one's implying any such thing.
Mr. Duerr: I don't know what you mean.
Senator Kennick: We all recognize green or yellow…at least we should.
Mr. Duerr: This is not that simple.
Senator Kennick: You've made it that unsimple, that's an absolute cinch.
Mr. Duerr: I didn't make it. It just isn't simple.
Senator Richardson: Do you know that oral copulation in the state of California is a felony?
To be concluded tomorrow...