This year marks the 50th anniversary of the censorship of Saint Peter’s literary magazine, The Pavan— an action which ignited an impassioned debate about free speech on campus, and captured the attention of the acclaimed poet, Allen Ginsberg.
The publication of the Pavan’s Fall 1969 issue took Saint Peter’s by a storm. One poem, “A Fool’s Diary,” by George Thorry, deconstructed the traditional image of the Virgin Mary by describing her as “an old whore” with “coptic crabs.” The other poem, an untitled piece by Bill McNeil, graphically described a back-alley abortion.
It didn’t take long for then-school president, Fr. Yanitelli, to cut the magazine’s budget. To justify his actions to the magazine’s Editor, Bill Scheller, Fr. Yanitelli cited the two poems, which he believed to be “blasphemous and scatological.”
Word of the controversy quickly made its way to wealthy alumni, many of whom were enraged by the poems.
“Hanging [Thorry, McNeil, and Scheller] from the highest tree on the hallowed campus ground would be a mild punishment,” one alumnus wrote in a Jersey Journal op-ed. “Perhaps, rolling them out on Kennedy Boulevard so that the buses and vehicles could press them out in pieces smaller than their character might be more suitable.”
Alumni weren't the only ones offended by Thorry and McNeil's poems. “We received a firestorm of letters, some of which were really nasty,” remembered Scheller.
George Thorry, author of “A Fool’s Diary,” was spending a semester abroad in Ireland as the controversy unfolded.
“I felt kind of helpless, being thousands of miles away while all this was going down,” Thorry recalled. “I thought I was gonna get kicked out of school.”
Not all of the attention was negative. The story eventually made its way to the radio and the New York Times, where the publicity it received brought in letters of support from alumni, doctors, lawyers, and writers. Many of the letters contained donations to subsidize the cost of printing an underground issue of the Pavan.
One of the most fervent supporters of the student’s right to free speech was Allen Ginsberg, a famous countercultural poet and activist who had spearheaded the rise of the hippie movement in America.
Only a few months before, Allen Ginsberg and his father Louis Ginsberg, also a poet, had appeared at Saint Peter's, where they held a well-attended poetry reading in Dineen Hall.
“It wasn't just a poetry reading,” one alumnus, Richard Mara, recalled. “We were trying to set up a new social and political order...it was exhilarating.”
Months later, when Allen Ginsberg heard about the censorship of the Pavan, he rushed to the defense of the poem’s writers.
“There are no pure motives and never have been in the censorship of poetry,” he wrote in a letter to the Saint Peter's Board of Trustees.
Ginsberg himself was no stranger to censorship. His most famous work, Howl, had been the center of a widely publicized obscenity trial after his publishers had been arrested due to the poem’s references to homosexuality and illicit drugs.
Ginsberg’s letter to the Board of Trustees also referred to the cover of the controversial issue, which was a photograph depicting an apartment door with a broken lock- “courtesy of the Jersey City narcotics squad.”
The picture had been taken by Scheller after the narcotics squad had broken into his apartment to arrest an acquaintance of his who had been dealing marijuana.
Ginsberg’s letter condemned Saint Peter’s College for “forbidding students to reprint photographs of obnoxious un-American behavior by police,” especially after police agencies in New York and New Jersey had been caught pushing heroin and cooperating with the mafia.
Ultimately, the Pavan was able to print an underground issue through the help of a printer who agreed to do print the issue for free “in the name of free speech.”
The underground issue of the Pavan started with a bold declaration from the Editor: “The views and expressions printed in the Pavan are not necessarily those of the Administration, the Pope, or the class of 1908,” it read. “And we are not consciously trying to offend [anyone], although you are free to lick your wounds if you feel afflicted.”
Much to the chagrin of the administration, George Thorry, author of “A Fool’s Diary,” returned home from Ireland to find himself unanimously elected next year’s Editor of the Pavan.
Shortly after, the Student Senate, oblivious to the controversy, passed the Pavan’s budget request for the next year. In hopes that they could put the issue to rest once and for all, the administration decided not to rescind the budget that had been passed.
The Pavan has not been censored since, but Saint Peter’s history of censorship didn’t end in 1969.
In 2016, Saint Peter’s University made headlines for cutting off the budget of the student newspaper, the Pauw Wow, after the staff published a Valentine’s Day issue focusing on sex.
Unlike students at public universities, students at private institutions are not protected by the First Amendment. According to Gabriella Robles, an alumnus who was on the staff of Pauw Wow when its budget was cut in 2016, this makes students at Saint Peter’s much more susceptible to censorship.
“Student newspapers are the only form of organized media whose sole purpose is to report on a specific campus community,” Robles said. “If student newspapers aren't looking deeply at administrators, faculty, the student body and the actions happening around them, no one else will.”
Today, the Pavan’s former editor, Bill Scheller, lives in Vermont and is the author of over 30 books. He wasn’t surprised to learn that the Pavan scandal had been forgotten after nearly fifty years— but he believes that the controversy is more relevant than ever. “1969 was a flashing point in our history,” he said. “That was the last time that things were as sharply divided as they are right now.”