This story is part of The Commonwealth Times’ special coverage in honor of its 50th anniversary.
Fadel Allassan, News Editor
Bill Royall was no bystander as the United States underwent a decade packed with social changes.
The former CT executive editor was something of a maverick, and the newspaper he led in 1971-72 was a reflection of that. With nude photography and ads for vibrators, the CT spreads were a monument to the remnants of the counterculture of the 1960s that prevailed into the following decade.
The newspaper, which was in its first year as an entity independent from VCU, was also a testament to the First Amendment — a cornerstone of journalism. Royall believed so firmly in the press freedoms enshrined in one of the nation’s founding documents that he nearly paid a big price for it.
Royall took the risk when he approved an advertisement for an abortion service in Washington D.C., where abortion was legal, in the school newspaper. Campus papers around the country ran ads funded by Planned Parenthood. But at that time in Virginia, state law made it illegal to encourage abortions via lectures, advertisements, or any other manner.
“I had a feeling that that law wouldn’t stand up in court,” Royall said decades later.
The ad ran. So did an editorial written by Royall on behalf of his staff, explaining they did not believe the law aligned with the First Amendment.
“In this week’s issue of The Commonwealth Times, we have found it necessary to knowingly break the law,” the article read. “The only quick way to get rid of this unfair law is to bring it to court. We trust that a fair state court and almost any federal court would find this law unconstitutional and strike it down.”
Royall said the newspaper became the talk of the town when it came out on Jan. 6, 1972. The staff of The CT did not hide from what they published, either. Staff members went to the state Capitol and passed out copies.
Royall said the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Richmond at the time said he had broken the law, and that he should expect to be arrested soon. Royall immediately lawyered up, hiring an lawyer intent on protecting people’s civil liberties.
The Student Media Board called Royall for questioning and gave the editor the reprimanding he expected. Members of the board feared running the ad could affect VCU’s allocation of state funds by the state legislature at a time when the university was particularly cash-strapped. The board eventually decided to not punish Royall.
Royall said The Commonwealth Times’ faculty advisor, George Crutchfield, was fully supportive. So were members of The CT staff, who remained unfazed throughout the ordeal.
“It was the usual laughing and joking about it the entire time,” Royall said. “People were asking me what I was going to eat in jail.”
In a letter to the editor in February, Sharon Naiman, a member of the D.C. chapter of Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition, called the effort “praiseworthy” and said it “stands as an example for the news media as a whole.”
“While I would support your right to print these advertisements, I would question whether you are doing a service to your readers by so doing,” wrote Robert Duvall in the same issue. “I would question whether these agencies are providing a legitimate service, or in fact, whether they are trying to make a quick profit from women in difficult circumstances.”
Royall said he has never had a stance on whether abortion should be legal or not, despite it being one of the most controversial issues of the time.
“It wasn’t that I was pro or anti-abortion,” Royall said. “We thought that students needed to know this information. We also wanted to test the law.”
It was an activist endeavor on Royall’s part. He saw what he viewed as an unjust law and decided to challenge it.
“I was ready to go to jail for it,” Royall said. “I had already been to army basic training at that point so nothing could scare me.”
The Commonwealth’s Attorney never sent anyone to arrest Royall, and he was never taken to court. Royall said the General Assembly revised the legislation in question months later, changing it to make only promoting or encouraging “illegal” abortions a crime. It was “absolutely” because of the Times’ abortion ad, Royall said.
Royall went on to work for the Republican National Committee, working with the 1972 re-election campaign of Richard Nixon, which he said “didn’t fit the profile” of someone who had advocated for loosening speech laws surrounding abortion.
“There were some people who were smarter than me,” Royall said, “but there was no one better prepared for the job because what I learned at The Commonwealth Times and VCU.”