(Reuters) - Republican candidate Newt Gingrich attacks President Barack Obama as a “radical” and “community organizer,” but as a Tulane University graduate student in 1968, he helped lead an anti-censorship protest in defense of sexually explicit photographs.
While Republican foe Mitt Romney steered clear of the college campus tumult that year by doing Mormon missionary work in France, Gingrich warned Tulane’s president of an impending “clash of wills” over the university administrator’s decision to ban publication of explicit photographs in “Sophia,” a literary supplement for the student newspaper “The Tulane Hullabaloo.”
The episode illustrates some of the same pugnaciousness that Gingrich now displays as a candidate for the Republican nomination.
It also underscores a sharp evolution in his views on civil protest, an issue that has played out during the campaign because of the growing strength of the Occupy Wall Street movement. During a forum last November, Gingrich suggested that participants in the Wall Street protests, “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.”
And Gingrich has repeatedly made comparisons between Obama and Saul Alinsky, a forebear of 1960s campus activism and a powerful community organizer in Chicago in the 1960s -- the city where the president began his career in public service after graduating from Columbia University in the 1980s.
During the Tulane demonstrations, Gingrich emerged as a leader of one of the student protest factions. His politics, according to fellow students on the New Orleans campus, were those of a liberal Republican.
“In a sense, Gingrich has been very consistent. He utilizes free speech more than almost any other American,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, who said he found the candidate’s student activism “very amusing.”
Sabato puts those days in the same category as Obama’s community organizing in Chicago.
“We should be less interested in where the candidates have been many years ago, and more concerned about where they are now,” he added. “However, it would be interesting to hear how Newt (like Obama) got from there to here. Does he still think his actions at Tulane were correct?”
A spokesman for Gingrich’s presidential campaign did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Accounts published by the Hullabaloo, retrieved from university archives, describe the standoff over two artistic images the literary magazine sought to publish.
One photo showed a Baton Rouge sculptor posing beside what was described as a “mechanized box” carrying “symbolic descriptions” of human body parts, including sex organs. The second image showed a naked sculptor posing with a statue that depicted what Hullabaloo described as “male and female figures with enlarged sexual organs.”
A proposed caption described one photograph as “an ironical statement on the fad for nudism.”
Tulane authorities at the time, including President Herbert Longenecker, banned publication, argued that the images “are considered to be obscene” and could expose the university to “criminal prosecution.”
Demonstrations erupted, including a picket of Longenecker’s residence. Within days, the movement split into factions. Gingrich’s group called itself Mobilization of Responsible Tulane Students, otherwise known as MORTS.
The same day that MORTS announced its formation, student picket lines spread to the New Orleans offices of Merrill Lynch, a local bank, a department store and a local TV station.
On March 11, 1968, MORTS leaders, including Gingrich, met with Longenecker and other college officials. Typewritten minutes held in college archives show that Gingrich was one of the more outspoken leaders at the meeting, employing the kind of bombastic rhetoric that has been a trademark of his national political career.
“It is now a question of power and if the student body wants to demonstrate until May - we are down to a clash of wills,” Gingrich told Longenecker, according to the minutes, which were obtained by Reuters.
As the meeting concluded, Gingrich warned: “There will be increasing attempts of the student body ... to test the guide-lines and test the administration. As long as the student body is aroused it will meet.”
Eventually, the protests waned and the university held firm on the photograph ban. Some members of Gingrich’s protest group later went on to form the Tulane Liberation Front, which occupied a student center and demanded that the swimming pool be opened to the general public.
Though college campuses were hotbeds for political dissent into the 1970s, Gingrich’s student activism waned. University records show that by the summer of 1969, his protest days were behind him. He had persuaded Tulane to allow him to teach a non-credit course in futurology called “When You are 49; The Year 2000.”
Reporting By Mark Hosenball in Washington; additional reporting by Kathy Finn in New Orleans; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Philip Barbara