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Introduction, Workshop 9: Free Speech

In "Resistance and Transformation," a Tapestry of Faith program

We consider the House Committee's inquiry into speakers, meetings and activities of the church an attack upon our institution and on all organized religion and our nation's tradition of the free conscience and the open mind. — Paul Kelley, chairman, in a statement from the First Church Los Angeles Board of Trustees, September 1951

The right to speak one's mind is one of the founding principles of the United States of America. "Free speech" is secured by the First Amendment to the Constitution alongside freedom of religion, of the press, and of assembly. These principles are basic to the society in which we live. But is it the work of religious institutions to safeguard these key freedoms?

There are certainly many religious traditions that do not consider "free speech" to be fundamental to their work. In Unitarian Universalism, however, we have a long tradition of open debate. Many take it for granted that Unitarian Universalists ardently support the right to free expression, regardless of the political context. However, it is not always so cut-and-dry.

This workshop examines a time in our history when the issue of free speech was the focus of both national and intra-religious debate. In the anti-Communist fervor of the mid-20th century, the United States House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) actively pursued anyone who might be considered a Communist or "fellow traveler." The Rev. Stephen Fritchman of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles was the first member of the clergy HUAC called to testify. Although many in the Unitarian world, including the president of the American Unitarian Association (AUA), supported Rev. Fritchman's refusal to answer questions or name associates, there was much debate in Unitarian circles about how best to deal with the perceived threat of Communism.

In 1951, First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles refused to sign the loyalty oath imposed by the Levering Act in the State of California and, as a result, temporarily lost their tax-exempt status. The congregation was one of several to fight the imposition of the loyalty oath on religious groups all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the congregations eventually prevailed.

Fritchman and the congregants of First Church considered free speech to be a defining issue of their time. Through first-person accounts, this workshop invites participants to consider the importance of free speech as a social justice issue today.

To ensure you can help adults of all ages, stages, and learning styles participate fully in this workshop, review these sections of the program Introduction: "Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters" in the Integrating All Participants section, and "Strategies for Effective Group Facilitation" and "Strategies for Brainstorming" in the Leader Guidelines section.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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