How Charlton Heston saved academic freedom at Northwestern University

Dan Proft Apr. 13, 2008, 7:41am

His autobiography was entitled, "In the Arena" and that is most certainly where Charlton Heston lived his life.

When fundamental principles of individual rights and human liberty were at stake, Heston wheeled his chariot into the arena to do intellectual battle. He was the rare iconic figure who did not let his status inhibit him from consistently acting in furtherance of what he knew to be just.

News accounts about his passing have detailed his record on civil rights and gun rights but it is on free speech rights that I am able to give eyewitness testimony.

There is an independent, student newspaper on the campus of Northwestern University today because of Charlton Heston.

Ten years ago, at the behest of the student government and with the tacit acceptance of the university's administration, the Northwestern Chronicle was to be silenced.

The student government did not like some of the right-of-center views expressed in the Chronicle so as leftist hypocrites who preach tolerance and practice intolerance are wont to do, they moved to "derecognize" the newspaper, which effectively would have prohibited its publication.

Northwestern University President Henry Bienen (who is still the university's president) said at the time that expunging the Chronicle was not a matter of free speech.

The Northwestern alumni who founded the Chronicle in 1992--including me--strongly disagreed.

Heston had also attended Northwestern (where he met his wife) prior to being called up to serve by the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. We believed he would be concerned about what was happening at his alma mater-and he was.

We brought this matter to Heston's attention and he intervened on the paper's behalf.

Heston corresponded with President Bienen and availed himself to both local and national media outlets that picked up the story.

Upon further reflection, the university's administration rekindled their stated love affair with academic pluralism on campus and a permanent stay of execution for the Chronicle was so ordered.

There were many prominent persons of varying political stripes that entered the fray to defend the Chronicle. Liberals like Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn and Medill Journalism Professor David Protess as well as conservative commentators like Tom Roeser and John Leo all came to our aid. But Heston's involvement was clearly the key.

This may not seem like a big deal to some. Heston used his influence to save one campus newspaper at one small, private university. So what? How much difference did that make in the grand scheme of things as political correctness still rages on in colleges across America?

To assess Heston's actions in terms of scope is to miss the fundamental point.

Heston saw an opportunity to assist those who were acting in accordance with a shared belief that institutions of higher learning should be free marketplaces of ideas. Because it mattered to us, it mattered to him.

Heston made all the difference for us as well as for the annual addition of new students that publish the paper to this day.

Fortunately, in one of the true highlights of my life, I was able to publicly thank Charlton Heston for the difference he had made when he came to speak at Northwestern and I was privileged to introduce him.

The moral of this story and, for that matter, of Heston's life is not to be found simply in the magnitude of his accomplishments but in his enduring personal example of principled activism.

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