The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago has a long history as a haven of reason and inclusion. It preaches “deed not creed,” and, according to its Web site, promotes “intellectual, philosophical, and artistic freedom.” Founded in 1882, six years after the Ethical Culture movement was launched in New York as a religion for the modern age by 24-year-old Felix Adler, the Chicago group now describes itself as “a home for those who seek a rational, compassionate philosophy of life without regard to belief or non-belief in a supreme being.” Instead of prayer-centered services, it offers Sunday morning lectures on social issues, philosophy, and the arts. Reformer Jane Addams, in her day, was a regular speaker, and the lineup for this month includes professors of journalism, medical ethics, and philosophy elucidating subjects from the Taco Bell boycott to pediatric genetic testing.
But its tolerance for multiple viewpoints notwithstanding, the EHSC is embroiled in a criminal case as a result of a melee that blew up when it canceled a controversial speaker and then, when she showed up anyway, called in the cops. The speaker was Sunsara Taylor, a New York-based writer for the Revolutionary Communist Party newspaper Revolution and a cheerleader for its reclusive chairman, Bob Avakian. Avakian, who cut his teeth in left-wing groups in Berkeley in the 1960s, hasn’t made a public appearance in years. But Taylor, who first surfaced about five years ago as an anti-Bush, antiwar activist and radical feminist, is everywhere, espousing Avakian’s views, from antitheism to the call for a grassroots revolution that will “meet and defeat” the repression of the current world order. Last spring, after hearing Taylor on a panel at Columbia College, one of EHSC’s program committee members proposed her for a Sunday lecture.
There are a couple key points of disagreement over what transpired after that, but what’s clear is that Taylor was asked to speak at the society and then later informed that she was no longer welcome. The society requested that she speak on the topic of “morality without gods.” She sent in a description of the talk she planned to deliver that said we live in “a time of moral crises” caused by the disruptive effects of “imperialist globalization.” It claims these changes have led to the resurgence of fundamentalist religion (there’s also a reference to “Christian fascists”), and asks “how do we counter that with a secular morality of our own?” Less than two weeks before the event and after she’d made travel plans at her own expense (she was to be paid a $200 honorarium), she got an e-mail from EHSC advising her that they’d decided not to host her after all. A couple Peace Corps members were lined up as substitutes.
The question of whether Taylor was ever officially invited to appear is a point of contention. She says she was, and points out that EHSC’s October newsletter listed her November 1 talk as a coming attraction. EHSC board president Matthew Cole says the scheduling was tentative, and that the EHSC program committee “asked for topic clarifications before finalizing” it. He says they received that clarification October 13, concluded that the subject matter had changed, and “decided not to complete the invitation process.” But an October 28 letter to Taylor from the board seems to support her contention, referring to a decision “made by our program committee to rescind your invitation.”
Taylor says that decision was based on stereotypes of communism and distortions of what she planned to say. In an October 29 open letter posted on her blog Taylor wrote: “EHSC’s decision to dis-invite me was . . . pushed through in contradiction to the Society’s own stated principles and in an atmosphere where fear and anti-communism were being aggressively stoked.” She says it was clear all along where she was coming from (a Google search will immediately bring up her communist affiliation) and that among other things she’d be challenging the morality of capitalism. “You’d think people who were ethical and humanistic would want to open that debate up,” she says, adding that EHSC members “have a right to know what their leaders are doing on their behalf—whether they’re fostering open discussion or functioning as gate-keepers.” She kept after EHSC, and on the last two Sundays in October a few of her supporters leafleted at the society’s building in Skokie. Cole says the leaflets included excerpts from private e-mails about her talk that had been exchanged among program committee members.
The board didn’t change its decision, but Taylor had another chance to talk to members of the EHSC: the adult education committee had invited her to do a workshop on feminist issues the day before her Sunday talk. The workshop went on as scheduled, and Shirlee Rubenstein, a member who thought Taylor should have been allowed to speak, opened her home as an alternative site for the lecture. At the workshop Taylor also announced that she’d return to EHSC the next morning, to give the organization one last chance to “do the right thing.” Cole says, “It was incongruous; she harangued our group for censoring her from the pulpit she says she couldn’t speak from.”
Taylor, who says she records most of her public appearances, arrived that Sunday at EHSC’s building at Lincoln Avenue and Howard accompanied by Gregory Koger, a local volunteer who’d videotaped the workshop the day before. She says she noticed police cars parked outside, and that once they got inside, Cole approached them and asked Koger not to tape. Koger put his camera away, but as Taylor began what she says was to be a brief statement before the regular program, he recorded it on his cell phone. A man who turned out to be a plainclothes cop hired by EHSC grabbed Koger, attempting to eject him, and was quickly joined by four or five uniformed officers.
Here again there’s disagreement about what happened. According to Koger’s lawyer, Scott Frankel, the police “tackled him, threw him against a wall, Maced him after he was handcuffed, and then charged him with resisting arrest.” (Corresponding accounts from witnesses are posted on Taylor’s blog.) They also charged him with trespass and battery.
This wasn’t Koger’s first run-in with the law: convicted as a teenager in Lake County of armed violence, he spent 11 years in prison, where he did a lot of reading and discovered the Revolutionary Communist Party through its newspaper. Koger posted bond; he has a status hearing January 28.
Taylor gave her speech at Rubenstein’s home without further incident. Rubenstein resigned from EHSC in protest of its treatment of Taylor. “I didn’t think it was a good idea for the society to be known as a place that wasn’t open to hear someone speak,” she says.
Chicagoan Jay Becker, part of the Ad Hoc Committee for Reason and Dropping the Charges, formed in support of Koger, says the EHSC incident is part of a trend to suppress speech that includes McHenry County College’s recent cancelation of a talk by Northern Illinois University law professor and Gitmo prisoner attorney Marc Falkoff (subject of a 2007 Reader profile). Falkoff is scheduled to speak, along with Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers, at the committee’s first public event, a talk on censorship at Evanston’s BooCoo.