Free speech, discussion thrive at Boston's Ford Hall Forum

Can the soap box survive the television tube, the cable explosion, the satellite storm, the spiraling college lecture circuit?

Yes, if the soap box is like the one provided at the Ford Hall Forum, a 74 -year-old Boston institution. A forum for free speech and discussion, the privately run program features a series of 10 lectures each year. Audiences are treated to talks by controversial and outspoken people, such as television producer Norman Lear and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young.

And, unlike many ordinary lectures or debates, each speaker agrees to spend a good part of the evening answering questions from the equally outspoken listeners.

But maintaining its tradition has not been easy in a world of inflation and dwindling finances, says Deac Rossell, vice-president of the forum and one of the new faces joining the group's hierarchy in recent years. To counter this, the 1981-82 year was capped with a speaker who was also a magnet for a fund-raising venture.

Maya Angelou, author, poet, black activist, women's advocate, and entertainer , was the closing speaker May 9. She also received the forum's second First Amendment Award -- Norman Lear won the inaugural honor last year -- in a pre-program fund-raiser.

Her appearance wrapped up a year that targeted issues ranging from the financial security of social security to the unorthodox ideas of Ayn Rand. Her address was delivered posthumously.

Miss Rand, who never raised her fee from $300 and paid her own expenses, often explained why she made the forum her only public appearance each year:

''This is the only platform in the country where you can speak the truth, no matter what your belief is, no matter what side you champion. And people can talk back to you, and you can talk back to them.''

Money is an ongoing forum problem. The speaker's honorarium has ballooned from the traditional $300 plus expenses to the $3,000 plus that is now paid guests on the booming college lecture circuit.

During the early 1970s, it looked as though the forum might have to close due to lack of support. The US had changed, explains Mr. Rossell. Talk radio and television brought free speech and ''experts'' to the living room, and people could ''talk back'' from the comfort of home, he added.

The forum acted. New and younger members were elected to the board. Fresh ideas to raise funds were introduced, including the First Amendment Award. The Ford Hall Forum has raised an additional $100,000 endowment this year to bolster funds from memberships and volunteer donations, Rossell says.

Through the years discussion topics have included any controversial issue of the day -- Nazism in the 1930s, black radicalism and the peace movement in the 1960s, ethics in government in the 1970s, and Reaganomics today. No speech has been called off because of public protest -- whether it was the riot caused by the appearance of a Nazi backer, Prof. Friederich Schoenemann, in 1933, or the overflow of thousands for an address by Malcolm X in 1963.

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