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Written by David Schultz, published on January 1, 2009 , last updated on May 18, 2024

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Chicago law professor Harry Kalven Jr. is known for his advocacy and writings on free expression. "A Worthy Tradition: Freedom of Speech in America" was an unfinished work published after his death and has become a classic in First Amendment law. Kalven also published a book on how the Civil Rights Movement shaped First Amendment law and was chair of a committee at the University of Chicago that developed a report in 1967 on when and whether the university should make pronouncements on controversial political issues (known as the Kalven Committee Report).

Harry Kalven Jr. (1914–1974), a University of Chicago law professor, was best known for his advocacy of and thoughtful writings about freedom of speech and free expression.

Kalven was born in Chicago, where he attended the University of Chicago both as an undergraduate and law student before serving in the military during World War II. He then taught at the University of Chicago from 1945 until his death at age 60 in 1974.

Kalven defended comedian in obscenity case

Three events are critical to Kalven’s reputation as an insightful defender of the First Amendment.

First, in 1963 he successfully defended comedian Lenny Bruce’s obscenity appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. Bruce often used profanity and sexual references in his stand-up routines. After a Dec. 4, 1962, performance at the Gates of Horn Club in Chicago, Bruce was arrested and eventually convicted of violating a state obscenity statute. Kalven and other members of his legal team appealed the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, which agreed in People v. Bruce (Ill. 1964) that his comedy routine was social commentary and not obscenity. The decision has been hailed as a major victory for artistic freedom.

Kalven wrote ‘The Negro and the First Amendment’

The second event was publication of Kalven‘s 1965 book The Negro and the First Amendment — about how the Civil Rights Movement had shaped First Amendment doctrine and how expressive liberty had promoted racial justice.

In the book he argued that the core of free political speech was the absence of seditious libel as a crime.

In 1967, during a politically tumultuous period, Kalven chaired a committee that produced guidelines on how and when the university should make pronouncements on controversial political issues. The report, known as the Kalven Committee Report, argued that the university should be “the home and sponsor of critics” rather than itself serving as the critic or mouthpiece for such dissent. As the home of “a community of scholars,” the university “must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.” The report insisted that the best way “to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry,” was for the university to “embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.”

Finally, his unfinished work, A Worthy Tradition: Freedom of Speech in America (1988), was published after his death and is now considered a classic in First Amendment law. The book traces the evolution of free speech in American court cases from the early part of the 20th century in Schenck v. United States (1919) and Gitlow v. New York (1925) to the 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio. Kalven argued that the Supreme Court had gradually expanded the scope of political speech in the United States to protect democratic dissent and disagreement.

After his death, the American Civil Liberties Union created a Harry Kalven Jr. prize to recognize other champions of free speech.

This article was originally published in 2009. David Schultz is a professor in the Hamline University Departments of Political Science and Legal Studies, and a visiting professor of law at the University of Minnesota. He is a three-time Fulbright scholar and author/editor of more than 35 books and 200 articles, including several encyclopedias on the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court, and money, politics, and the First Amendment.

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