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Free-speech bulwark is 75 years young

Looking out from inside this technological age, one is tempted to view the Constitution as nothing more than a historical parchment for archivists to ponder. In such an age, when machines and microchips seem to have diminished all that went before them, Boston's Ford Hall Forum is breathing life into the document that served as midwife to the birth of the nation.

For 75 years the Sunday evening lecture series has stood by and fought for free speech - sometimes testing the limits of that sacred freedom:

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Nov. 26, 1933. By 6 p.m. all 3,000 seats in Ford Hall are filled to capacity. A buzz of excited talk rises from the restless crowd. On the laps of many are afternoon newspapers telling of concentration camps in Germany where Jews are being confined.

Professor Friedrich Schoeneman arrives at 7 p.m., is hustled into the auditorium, and immediately mounts the platform to deliver his lecture entitled ''Why I believe in the Hitler Government.''

An angry crowd outside Ford Hall has grown to 5,000 people. They carry signs denouncing Schoeneman and the Ford Hall Forum. There are shouts of ''Keep the Nazis out of Boston!'' and ''Down with Hitler!'' Police in riot gear order the marchers to disperse. Instead, the demonstrators surge forward and attempt to enter the hall. Mounted policemen answer with a cavalry charge.

Inside, the crowd is relentless in its derision. A roar of boos and angry curses swallow Schoeneman's words. He shouts to be heard above the clamor. . . .

Dec. 5, 1960. White-haired and diminutive, an elderly gentleman is introduced and shuffles to the rostrum. The overflow crowd rises spontaneously and pays standing tribute to the dean of American poets, Robert Frost.

For an hour and a half he reads his poetry to them, punctuating the poems with stories and comments, speaking to the gathered throng as if the hall were the living room in his house or the rostrum a picket fence on which he was leaning and the audience his next-door neighbor.

''My poetry is first of all for those of kindred spirit, not to convert anybody, not for anything, just for companionship.''

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Oct. 7, 1963. The Freedom March in Washington two months before has given new momentum to the Civil Rights movement. Blacks sense a coming change but are bewildered by their newfound political clout and are looking for leaders.

Malcolm X arrives in Boston and delivers a fiery speech to a capacity crowd at the Ford Hall Forum. He calls for complete separation of the blacks and whites in the United States, attacks white liberals, and gives the Black Muslim interpretation of civil-rights gains.

Negro civil right leaders are black bourgeoisie integration seekers who are out of touch with the Negro masses, he says. ''We will have no part of integration with a wicked race that has enslaved us. . . .''m

Nazi, poet, Black Muslim. The thread that weaves together such divergent men and ideas is the inalienable right of free speech, ''the cornerstone of democracy.'' And the seamstress of that delicate fabric of freedom is the Ford Hall Forum - now celebrating its 75th year - which has stood staunchly by that First Amendment ideal throughout the 20th century by providing a Sunday night soapbox to world-renowned speakers of any and every political stripe.

Founded in 1908 by George W. Coleman, who called it ''democracy in the making ,'' the Ford Hall Forum has served as a model for what is now the nearly extinct open-forum movement in the United States. Picketed, blacklisted, disowned by its original sponsor, the Forum has survived despite continued controversy - or perhaps because the controversy has kept it vital.

The notables that have graced the Forum's stage include Clarence Darrow, Carl Sandburg, Bertrand Russell, Archibald MacLeish, Margaret Mead, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Norman Cousins, Henry Kissinger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Buckminster Fuller, Jesse Jackson, and Germaine Greer.

Subjects discussed have mirrored the temper of the times and the controversies of the day: education, women's rights, race relations, religious issues, international conflict, economic depression, the space race, the cold war, the environment, sports, music, theater. Everything from the esoteric to the merely entertaining, from the profound to the silly.

The Forum began with an unassuming plan by George Coleman to hold a series of six free public meetings on Sunday evenings in 1908. Two years before, Daniel Sharp Ford, a wealthy publisher, had left funds to the Boston Baptist Social Union to erect a building as its home. The Ford Building which they eventually built on Boston's Beacon Hill housed Ford Hall.

Mr. Coleman prevailed upon the Baptist Social Union to permit him to stage his lectures in Ford Hall; the union agreed reluctantly. The first lecture was an unmitigated disaster, as a scant 150 attendees found themselves awash in a sea of empty chairs in the 1,000-seat auditorium. But the crowds began to build as word of the Forum spread, and soon long waiting lines outside the hall became a Beacon Hill landmark on Sunday evenings.

The Forum's staunch stand in favor of free speech has often run afoul of popularly held beliefs. The Daughters of the American Revolution blacklisted the Forum in 1928, accusing it of championing ''radical'' speakers, and the Baptist Social Union withdrew its sponsorship the same year.

Typical of the attacks was one by Charles L. Burrill, a former Massachusetts state treasurer who delivered this stinging rebuke on March 5, 1931: ''Boston, always liberal in free speech, is leaning backwards today to permit too much of it. Ford Hall Forum is a case in point. It has degenerated into a hotbed of Bolshevism, Communism, and Pacifism.''

But the frontal assaults on free speech have been less worrisome to supporters of the Forum than the subtle effects of changing technology and public tastes. Television's impact was felt most strongly more than three decades ago when it was first gaining in popularity. Back then, Forum attendance dropped dramaticallly for two or three years before rebounding to nearly the same level.

Ironically, one of the greatest threats the Forum faces is today's booming lecture circuit. The college lecture circuit has helped drive up the price of speakers, so that a Henry Kissinger or a Gerald Ford can command over $10,000 for a single lecture. But the Forum doesn't really compete for college lecturers , whose often ''pop'' lecture topics are quite different from the hard-hitting issues the Forum tackles.

The larger threat to the Forum comes from growing demand for convention speakers. With entertainment budgets approaching or exceeding $50,000 for a three-day convention, industry and trade groups can afford to pay the asking price of top lecturers, prices the Forum cannot compete with.

The whole question of pay has confounded the Forum and even affected to some extent the ideological bent of the speakers. ''For some reason or other, some of the conservatives that we would like to have to the Forum are priced so high we cannot deal with it,'' says Frances Smith, former director and president of the Forum and now chairman of the board. ''Conservative economists, for instance, are easily in five figures. . . . Our budget for the whole season might be $25, 000. Liberal economists are not inexpensive, but don't go anywhere near that range.''

New York Times columnist Tom Wicker once opened a Ford Hall Forum lecture by quipping: ''This is a great place to be - here with all the other Eastern liberal elitists.''

Notwithstanding Wicker's humorous intent, the ''liberal'' tag has often been applied to the Forum, though mostly by those who are not familiar with the Forum or who choose to see a preponderance of speakers of a particular ilk. Any forum that can put Ayn Rand, William O. Douglas, William F. Buckley, George McGovern, and Angela Davis on the same stage (though not at the same time) can hardly be accused of favoring a particular political persuasion.

Still, the misperception persists, perhaps because the staunch defense of individual rights has come to be associated with liberal causes.

The Forum goes to extremes to avoid typecasting. Speakers are chosen from the radical right, the radical left, and all political compass points in between. There is a prescribed format for each talk: A lecturer speaks for 45 minutes and then answers questions for the same amount of time. No speaker is engaged who does not agree to the question-and-answer period. To many, that opportunity for audience involvement symbolizes the Forum's egalitarian approach and helps explain why it has remained so vital.

''The importance of the Forum is that it promotes tolerance,'' says Mrs. Smith. ''I find time and again people stay around after the meetings are over and strangers talk to each other. There is an interrelationship that has nothing to do with age, color, creed, or educational background.''

The desire for uninhibited public debate has led to a colorful cross section of lectures and lecturers over the years. A Mrs. Forbes-Robinson addressed the Forum Jan. 18, 1931, on the topic ''Can a Modern Woman Afford a Husband?'' The Rev. John H. Holmes gave a lecture on April 3, 1938, entitled ''The Most Immoral Book of Our Time: Dale Carnegie's 'How to Win Friends and Influence People.' '' Some years later, Larry Flint, publisher of Hustler magazine, spoke on ''Pornography . . . an inalienable right.''

But not everyone who spoke pressed the limits of his First Amendment guarantees. In 1930, the Rev. J. Elliot Ross, associate director of the school of religion at the State University of Iowa, propounded on a topic close to the hearts of many: love. He declared: ''You cannot fall in love instantaneously. The school of fiction, the moving pictures, which represent love as coming to people immediately and with uncontrollable force has done no end of harm. This idea of love is absolutely false. This world would be a terrible place to live in if love came that way. . . . No one could tell when and where it would strike next.''

Even the controversial speeches had their lighter moments: When Margaret Sanger was barred from speaking on birth control in the 1930s, she and the Forum devised a way to neutralize the censorship. She sat on the platform with tape over her mouth while Arthur Schlesinger Sr. read her address.

Then there was the time in 1958 when the Soviet Union's ambassador came in on a train from Washington the day before his scheduled speech and called Louis P. Smith, then director of the Forum, and asked Mr. Smith if it might be possible to arrange a sightseeing trip for him. Mrs. Frances Smith, who joined them, picks up the tale:

''The ambassador knew more about the history of Boston than I knew at the time. He wanted to see the Paul Revere House, he wanted to see the Old North Church, Harvard University, historic buildings. . . . About three days later suddenly five or six FBI agents descended upon the city, cross-examining everybody at the hotel, cross-examining me, cross-examining Lou Smith. What did he go to look at? they asked. They had lost him. They had lost him out of Washington. It was difficult to convince the agents that he really didn't want to see anything, certainly nothing of military importance. He wanted to see Boston. He really knew the history.''

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