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 in 1974.
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 December 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.
The second event was publication of Kalven‘s 1965 book The Negro and the First Amendment—a major defense of free speech. In the book he argued that the core of free political speech was the absence of seditious libel as a crime.
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 America from the early part of the twentieth 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 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.Send Feedback on this article