“If the price we pay for the attempt to offend no reader’s taste is a resort to sacrifice of literary integrity, infringement of academic freedom, disregard for due process and outright deception, that price is too high.” The year was 1967 and the United States was in the midst of upheaval and instability. The war in Vietnam was in full […]
“If the price we pay for the attempt to offend no reader’s taste is a resort to sacrifice of literary integrity, infringement of academic freedom, disregard for due process and outright deception, that price is too high.”
The year was 1967 and the United States was in the midst of upheaval and instability. The war in Vietnam was in full swing and there were protests across the country speaking out against it. Issues of race and civil rights were causing protests and riots of their own. At the same time music and culture were changing. The Beatles released the legendary album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine was published, and the younger generation was moving into the spotlight and embracing the “Summer of Love.” Students were finding their voice, and college campuses were often at the epicenter of protests and debates.
Southeast Missouri State College was mostly quiet when it came to the protests and upheaval sweeping across college campuses around the country. However, the end of the 1967 fall semester brought with it a scandal that upset the relationship between students, faculty, and administration. Right before classes ended for winter break, the news came out that the student-run literary magazine, The Potboiler, had not been published as expected because of supposed “obscene” content in three stories. The real kicker? This decision had been made in October, but none of the student staff or faculty supervisors of The Potboiler found out about it until almost two months later.
With its first issue published in 1965, The Potboiler was intended to be a place where students could submit for publication a variety of creative works ranging from pictures and poems to short stories and essays. According to the foreword of that first edition, the magazine was created because students felt “that the need for literary expression has not been met on this campus and someone should attempt to publish a journal for the students by the students to fulfill this need.” The magazine was established to be a platform for student self-expression. With that goal in mind, it was all the more jarring when censorship was imposed from higher up.
Following the incident, the college chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization founded to advocate for academic freedom, launched an investigation into the events of the censorship. The chapter’s goal was to see if the actions of the administration were an infringement of the Potboiler staff’s freedom of the press, academic freedom, or in violation of academic due process guaranteed to both the students and faculty involved. In order to establish the sequence of events, the AAUP interviewed some of the faculty and administrators involved. While there were some variances in their testimonies, a general chain of events is evident across the accounts.
According to Herbert Scott, a professor of English and the Potboiler editorial committee chairman, a copy of the fall 1967 edition of The Potboiler was submitted to the campus printer in July of that year. In September or October, after going over the copy and personally finding the language and content in three stories, particularly one called “K.I.A,” objectionable and obscene, the college printer, Robert Cox, refused to print the magazine. Cox claimed that he thought the language was inappropriate for a student publication and was concerned about the school’s reputation should it be published.
There was some dispute about whether the objection was first brought to the attention of college President Dr. Mark Scully or Dean Carroll Walker, but regardless, it made its way to the Presidential Advisory Committee.
After looking over the three “problem” stories, the Advisory Committee agreed with Cox and President Scully, and gave their recommendation to the Board of Regents. The Board in turn agreed on October 27 that the stories contained obscenity and vulgarity and therefore the college was not obligated to publish them. However, none of the staff of The Potboiler were aware of this decision until December 14, almost two months after the decision and just a couple of days before classes were dismissed for the holidays. According to Scott, he had been checking in with Cox periodically and Cox had given no indication that The Potboiler was not going to published, just that the printing had been delayed. By early December, Scott claimed he had heard about another magazine that had submitted its copy much later and was being printed already. The Potboiler staff had begun inquiring about possibly printing the magazine off-campus when Scott found out, from a student, that The Potboiler was going to be printed without the three stories.
Students and faculty members across campus were understandably upset by these events once the spring 1968 semester began and word spread about what happened. The whole situation raised some important questions: What makes content “obscene”? Who is responsible for censoring student work? Should they be allowed to censor work in the first place? Why was no one from The Potboiler staff notified in a timely manner or through an official channel? To answer these questions the AAUP chapter launched its investigation and consulted a few different resources.
In collaboration with a few other organizations, the national office of the AAUP had drafted a “Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students” in 1967. According to Part IV, Section D of the Joint Statement, even when a student press is supported by its university, that does not give the institution the right of censorship. Members of the student press, as well as university employees, should have safeguards in place to prevent suspension or termination due to disagreements over published content. In order to legally protect the university itself, there should also be an explicit statement that the opinions in their publication do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the university at large.
The college chapter of the AAUP also drew heavily from “Academic Freedom and Civil Liberties of Students in Colleges and Universities,” a statement published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1965. Part E of the ACLU’s statement advocates that student publications should have full freedom of the press. If they are needed, advisory boards should be a mix of students and others who have some background in the liberal arts. It’s worth noting that many of the administrators who made the call not to print the stories in The Potboiler had little to no experience in the liberal arts themselves. The ACLU’s statement also specifically addresses literary magazines. Even if “adult sensibilities [are] at times offended by youthful humor and lack of taste,” the editor should still make the final call.
As far the definition of “obscene” goes, the AAUP pointed to a few key Supreme Court cases, such as Roth v. United States and Ginzburg v. United States. While there was, and still is, much debate about obscenity, the general consensus is that a work is obscene if as a whole it advocates a “prurient interest in sex” beyond national community standards and is “utterly without redeeming social value.” From this legal standpoint, The Potboiler story “K.I.A.,” would not be considered obscene. “K.I.A.” does have a large amount of profanity and is a story about a soldier in Vietnam dealing with a questionable issue of morality; however, the focus of the story is not sexual. In this case, the language was used to authenticate a setting and make a statement by the author about the war itself—a statement that obviously made some people uncomfortable.
The AAUP consolidated the findings from personal interviews and outside resources. They submitted a statement of concerns to the administration in February 1968. According to the AAUP, the academic freedom of The Potboiler staff was disregarded, which fractured the relationships between students, faculty, and administration. The AAUP lamented that there was “a breach of faith with the students” and a “partial failure” of the faculty’s academic responsibility to their students. That offense was compounded by the lack of academic due process through any official channels. Whether the non-communication was a failure of courtesy or a purposeful withholding of information, it appeared suspicious on the part of the administration. Direct communication could have avoided the problem altogether. To top it all off, the issue of “obscenity” was really more an issue of personal taste. According to the AAUP, personal taste was not a good enough reason to act in the way the administration did. Their concluding sentence made their feelings quite clear: “If the price we pay for the attempt to offend no reader’s taste is a resort to sacrifice of literary integrity, infringement of academic freedom, disregard for due process and outright deception, that price is too high.”
It was this statement of concerns that was found by Special Collections and Archives student employee Kelsey Barnett while she was reprocessing our AAUP Chapter Records collection. Her discovery prompted our own investigation into the events surrounding the scholastic censorship turned cover-up. Even though this happened over fifty years ago and the situation wasn’t as high-profile as many of the events of the 1960s, the discussions at the heart of The Potboiler matter continue to be debated. While issues of censorship today might focus more on social media posts than a story in a literary magazine, people are still fighting for their voices to be heard. Censorship is not a topic with one easy answer. The AAUP pointed out that even though they submitted a statement, the faculty were divided over it, and it continues to be divisive today. Freedom to speak one’s mind is lauded as one of the great American virtues, but how do we balance our free expression and respect for everyone else’s?
If you figure it out, let me know.
Graduate Assistant, Special Collections & Archives
The full text of “K.I.A.” can be found at https://semo.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16765coll8
If you’re interested in learning more about Supreme Court cases concerning obscenity and the First Amendment a good resource is the Legal Information Institute through Cornell Law School: https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution-conan/amendment-1/obscenity
The records from the AAUP’s investigation (including interview transcripts, statements by the AAUP and ACLU on academic freedom and censorship, and final statement by the college AAUP chapter) and copies of The Potboiler publications are also available to view at Special Collections & Archives, Kent Library, Room 306.