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The First Amendment, and all that jazz

Nat Hentoff in 2004. Photo via Flickr user K.G. Schneider

By Joan Lynch

Nat Hentoff, LA’44, H’85, widely known and respected for being a fierce civil libertarian as well as the preeminent jazz critic, was listening to Billie Holiday when he died at his home in Manhattan in January.

One of the most prominent and prolific authors and journalists ever to graduate from Northeastern, Hentoff, 91, was a renowned authority on the First Amendment. Although he graduated with a degree in English and journalism, he was nevertheless recognized with an honorary doctorate of law from the university.

But for some, he didn’t fit into their notion of political correctness. Hentoff’s writings were squarely in the libertarian camp, yet he denounced reproductive rights. He believed in free speech for all, even if that meant defending the right to promulgate bigotry.

“You had to admire his principles and consistency,” says Dan Kennedy, associate professor in the School of Journalism, who had the opportunity to interview the writer in 1996 for an article in Northeastern’s alumni magazine. He believes Hentoff’s body of work should have been recognized with a Pulitzer, and he often cites Hentoff in discussions of free speech with his journalism students.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Hentoff was born in 1925 and grew up in a largely Jewish, Irish, and African American neighborhood of Boston, where he soaked up jazz music coming through a neighbor’s open window. In his autobiography, he tells the story of his sixth-grade teacher arriving unexpectedly at the family’s apartment with a plea to let him take the Boston Latin School entrance exam. He graduated from that prestigious institution, then was accepted to Northeastern.

Hentoff was a Fulbright Fellow at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950, moved to New York City in the early ’50s, and began his famed career as a journalist writing for Down Beat magazine during jazz’s heyday. In 1958, he went to work for the fledgling Village Voice, the first alternative newsweekly in the U.S., where his political commentary and jazz critiques educated, enthralled, and enraged audiences for 50 years.

His byline appeared in, among many others, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, JazzTimes, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the New Republic. He hobnobbed with jazz greats, was an early adopter of Bob Dylan’s music, penned liner notes, and produced jazz albums. He wrote more than 30 books, including Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee, was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and was awarded the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award for his columns on the law and criminal justice.

In the book Boston Boy: Growing Up with Jazz and Other Rebellious Passions, Hentoff recounts the origin of his evangelism for the First Amendment. As editor of the Northeastern campus newspaper, Hentoff had become a thorn in the side of university president Carl Ell. When Ell got wind of an article that Hentoff had planned, which would be based on interviews of university trustees about their motivations for being on the board, he had had enough.

Ell devised a cunning plan. Hentoff and his staff had to sign an agreement about the  new rules for the paper, which limited the writers to reporting only about the affairs of the university. So, they could talk to trustees, but only to ask about their decisions regarding the university—and nothing else.

Hentoff and the staff resigned on the spot. And even though he knew that his self-removal was not a First Amendment matter, Hentoff felt that the spirit of the law had been rebuked. From that day on, he said, “Everyone’s free-speech rights have been my business.”

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