Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Resistance and Transformation: An Adult Program on Unitarian Universalist Social Justice History

Activity 3: Is Free Speech Fundamental?

Activity time: 20 minutes

Materials for Activity

  • Newsprint, markers, and tape

Preparation for Activity

Description of Activity

Introduce the activity with these or similar words:

Many Unitarians disagreed with Rev. Fritchman and First Unitarian's position. Correspondence from the period, including letters to the American Unitarian Association and to the denominational magazines, shows many people thought there were more important issues at stake than free speech. As Mary Lake of the Unitarian Church of Albany wrote, "This small group of Unitarians, because they are so vocal, get the headlines and are deemed by many as the spokesmen for our Unitarian fellowship. They certainly are not making a salutary contribution to our public relations, or to the advance of the Unitarian movement." Some argued that the time and money spent fighting the loyalty oath could be better spent on more concrete social justice actions, such a feeding the hungry.

The Rev. Donald Harrington, minister of Community Church in New York and a strong social justice advocate, joined many others with his belief that tolerating or permitting any hint of Communist sympathy in the church would lead to the erosion of liberal principles.

Read aloud this excerpt from Harrington's January 19, 1947 letter, which he called "How Communists Aid Fascists:"

The main point is that the liberal movement in this country has been rendered largely ineffective in its fight against fascism by the infiltration of the Communists into it. The Communists have rendered the liberal movement vulnerable because of their slavish devotion to Moscow... Until the liberal movement has purged itself of its Communists, it will be unable to carry on effectively the fight against fascism... Bill (the person to whom the letter is responding) would defend the right of a Unitarian to be a Communist. That is all right if that Unitarian is a schizophrenic. Let us recall that the Communists believe in dictatorship and the suppression of freedom of speech, and of the press, and of strikes, and of free labor, and of freedom from arbitrary search and arrest. If any Unitarian believing in the principle of the free mind and cherishing the methods of democracy can be a Communist, he must also be either a schizophrenic or a Communist conspirator, trying to use Unitarianism for Communist purposes. Anyone who knows what a Unitarian is and what a Communist is knows that you can't be both at the same time.

Invite participants to respond:

  • Does Rev. Harrington's point of view change your view of Rev. Fritchman's actions? If so, how?
  • How did the two men, both believing they were upholding Unitarian religious values, come to such different conclusions?
  • Do you think there are times when individual speech should or must be curtailed? When might those times be?