Free-speech controversies on campus — 1930s-style

The story of Frank Underhill, the U of T professor who battled the media and his school's administration for the right to speak his mind
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on April 2, 2018
illustration of three monkeys, see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil
An editorial cartoon from the September 24, 1940, edition of the Evening Telegram.

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​“If professors at Toronto must keep their mouths shut in order to preserve the autonomy of the university, then that autonomy is already lost,” wrote Frank Underhill, a history professor at the University of Toronto, to U of T president Robert Falconer in 1931. “A freedom that cannot be exercised without danger of disastrous consequences is not a real freedom.”

Underhill had a knack for stirring up controversy. His experience as a soldier during the First World War had shaped his anti-imperialist and non-interventionist views. By the early 1930s, he was active in left-leaning organizations, such as the League for Social Reconstruction; he helped write the Regina Manifesto, the first national platform for the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the predecessor to the NDP). Over the course of the next decade — in a series of disputes that would reach the provincial legislature — he and the U of T administration clashed repeatedly over the issue of free speech and whether and to what extent academics should be allowed to air their views outside the classroom.

In January 1931, Underhill and 68 other U of T professors published a letter in Toronto’s daily newspapers, in which they charged that the city’s police commission was suppressing the rights of assembly and free speech by trying to prevent leftist groups from booking venues for meetings. The press characterized the letter as a defence of Communism; bank executive John Aird suggested the professors should “stick to their knitting.” The university’s board of governors passed a resolution disassociating the institution from the letter.

Later that year, Underhill wrote an article for the British magazine New Statesman in which he criticized Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett for his handling of relations with Britain and the British Empire. In a letter to Underhill, Falconer raised one of the primary concerns of the administration — that articles critical of government leaders might endanger the university’s autonomy.

Falconer’s successor as president, Henry John Cody, believed that institutional purity could be maintained only if instructors — particularly those with left-view views — avoided controversy. “While academic freedom is rightly held to be essential to true university teaching,” Cody wrote in his first annual report as president, “academic responsibility accompanies it, and is equally imperative. The teacher to whom freedom is gladly given must realize and practice the responsibility which its possession imposes within and without the academic walls.” He believed universities suffered when faculty ventured “into the arena of practical politics or active economic and industrial questions.” As a result, he forced Underhill and several of his colleagues to resign positions they held with the CCF.

an archival photo of U of T professors

Although Cody admonished left-wing faculty members who publicly expressed their political views, he often revealed his own. Following a trip to Italy in 1933, he praised Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as “a very efficient man, who had a plan and the necessary faith in it to carry it out.” In a speech at Convocation Hall, he observed that “Canadians are inclined to emphasize too strongly the ‘rights’ of the individual and the ‘duties’ of the government, rather than to recognize that the government has rights and the individual has duties toward it” (in fairness, when Italy entered the Second World War, Cody returned a decoration he had received from Mussolini’s government).

During the mid-1930s, Underhill made public speeches in which he argued that Canada should detach itself from British foreign policy in order to avoid involving itself in the upcoming European conflict. These addresses sparked outrage among imperialists, who believed that Canadian patriotism should be grounded in the nation’s relationship with the British Empire —they saw criticisms of Britain as tantamount to treason. After each appearance, Cody would demand that Underhill stop speaking about such matters, and Underhill would promise to keep quiet. When, following one of these speeches, a prominent Toronto lawyer demanded that Underhill be dismissed, Cody replied, “No one takes him seriously, and as far as I have heard he makes no reference of those views nor does he attempt them in the university.”

It was harder to ignore an incident that occurred during a session of the Ontario Legislature on April 13, 1939. Earlier that month at a CCF convention, Trinity College lecturer George Grube had questioned the nation’s defence spending. In response, Conservative leader George Drew referred to the 1938 book Canada Looks Abroad, which, in a section on non-interventionism, quoted Underhill as once having said that Canada must “make it clear to the world, and especially to Great Britain, that the poppies blooming in Flanders Fields have no further interest to us.” Premier Mitch Hepburn yelled, “Shame, shame!”

Drew believed it was time to put a permanent stop to “statements of that kind by a man who either in or out of the educational institution is speaking to the public as a member of that institution,” as the future depended on universities producing students who defended “British democracy.” When a Liberal MPP introduced a motion to fire Grube and Underhill, Minister of Education L.J. Simpson urged that the university be consulted. To strike fear into the university, Hepburn read a telegram from the Newmarket Lions Club calling for U of T’s provincial grants to be cut until the board of governors “weeds out men who parade themselves before the public as traitors to the public and who poison the minds of Ontario’s finest young men and women.”

After the imperialist conservative press called for his head, Underhill wrote a letter to Cody explaining that the statement had been taken out of context and that he had simply meant it to convey his desire to avoid mass slaughter in a European war. He regretted that it had been perceived as offensive. More than 1,000 students signed a petition in support of Underhill. The matter eventually blew over, though in a June 1939 report Cody pleaded with professors to observe “dignity, good taste and the decent restraints of scholarship.”

an archival photo of Frank Underhill, a U of T professor

The next incident, though, nearly sank Underhill. On August 23, 1940, he attended the Couchiching Conference in Orillia, appearing on a panel examining the possible benefits of a united American-Canadian front. Five days earlier, under the Ogdensburg Agreement, the countries had established the Permanent Joint Board on Defence (PJBD). Underhill, noting that the war effort was not going well for Great Britain, observed that Canada now had “two loyalties, the old one to the British connection involving our backing up of Britain, and the new one to North America involving common action with the United States.” He believed that the British connection would weaken and that the American one would grow.

Attendees saw nothing outrageous in Underhill’s assessment, but imperialists were enraged by Underhill’s assertion that “we can no longer put all our eggs in the British basket.” Underhill also observed that “the new step in our policy does not necessitate a breach with our old connections” — but merely suggesting Canada might lessen its ties to the old country, especially at that point in the war, was seen as treasonous. The Evening Telegram, which carried the Union Jack in its masthead, published editorial after editorial attacking Underhill, even going so far as to suggest that he be interned. Former prime minister Arthur Meighen tried — and failed — to get Federal Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe to act on the idea. The province investigated the professor but concluded he had not committed any treasonous acts.

For months, Underhill’s fate was uncertain. The U of T board wanted him to be dismissed (one member, mining executive Balmer Neilly, called him “a common nuisance to the university”), but only Cody had the power to fire him. The president was facing opposing pressures: if Underhill remained at the university, provincial politicians might cut funding, but if he were forced to leave, Cody would almost certainly face pushback from U of T faculty, who generally supported the professor. He delayed the decision for months, until, tired of dealing with Underhill, he recommended dismissal in December 1940.

But, still concerned about the potential fallout from such a move, Cody and the board continued exploring their options. In January 1941, they offered Underhill the opportunity to resign quietly. He refused, noting that his job prospects in Canada would be non-existent. He demanded that the board present its issues in writing and allow him a chance to defend himself. Senior faculty warned Cody of the repercussions of a dismissal — those south of the border, for example, might take issue with the firing a pro-American academic. Students and alumni created petitions backing Underhill.

Underhill contacted friends for help — among them, Hugh Keenleyside, the Canadian secretary of the PJBD, who then himself spoke with several key figures in the federal government. Minister of National Defence Charles “Chubby” Power called Hepburn, whom some believed was behind the campaign to remove Underhill.

The board of governors deferred its final decision for five months. During the board’s meeting on June 26, 1941, former premier Howard Ferguson moved that Underhill be dismissed. While the board approved the action by a 7-4 vote, Cody then withdrew his previous recommendation, having decided to let the matter rest. In any case, Underhill, who in 1955 left to teach at Carleton, soon changed his radical ways, becoming, according to biographer R. Douglas Francis, “his own worst critic of his socialistic and anti-imperialist views.”

Sources: Frank H. Underhill: Intellectual Provocateur by R. Douglas Francis (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1986); The University of Toronto: A History by Martin L. Friedland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002); Academic Freedom in Canada: A History by Michiel Horn (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); Henry John Cody: An Outstanding Life by D.C. Masters (Toronto: Dundurn, 1995); and the January 23, 1931 edition of the Toronto Daily Star.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters. 

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