Fifty years of free speech at Berkeley

Massimo Mazzotti on the legacy of the 1964 movement

November 20, 2014

Source: Leader Mario Savio/Warren/UC Berkeley/Bancroft Library

Mario Savio famously took off his shoes before climbing on to the roof of a police car and using it as a stage to address students

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, a massive student mobilisation in defence of free speech that took place at the University of California, Berkeley campus during the autumn of 1964. It inspired an unprecedented wave of student protest across the US and helped to define the radical legacy of the 1960s. The memory of this movement has resurfaced at times of intense political engagement of the student body. On these occasions, the meaning of the campaign and its broader significance have been fiercely contended.

This autumn the debate erupted once again, reaching the national media in the US. As someone who is not steeped in this tradition, I was intrigued by how the memories and myths of 1964 still haunt and galvanise the Berkeley campus. But what are we talking about when we talk about free speech at Berkeley?

In early September, Nicholas Dirks, Berkeley’s chancellor, sent a message to the campus community that read, at first sight, like the usual start-of-the-year message that you would expect from somebody who is running a university. Dirks invited students and staff to “honor the ideal of Free Speech” while fostering civil, constructive dialogue in an environment in which everybody can feel safe and respected. What could go wrong with such a well-meaning message? In fact the reactions, on campus and in the outside world, have been swift and forceful.

Many commentators have analysed the message in legal terms. They have observed that the chancellor described free speech and civility as “two sides of a single coin”, arguing that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so”. But protected speech is not necessarily civil, courteous speech. On the contrary, speech that needs protection is often uncivil, angry and offensive to many.

According to the current interpretation of the First Amendment to the American Constitution, civility is not a precondition for free speech. To introduce a criterion of civility would be an unacceptable limitation to the right to free speech. Furthermore, as Berkeley students remarked in their newspaper The Daily Californian, civility is a slippery notion: who gets to decide what counts as uncivil behaviour? The chancellor? The campus police? That an authority should be granted such an enormous discretion would hollow out the right to free speech. After all, the now-celebrated Free Speech Movement looked rather uncivil to its opponents in 1964.

University of California administrators, who were accustomed to deference from students, were shocked by the militant nature of the student protest. To them, Mario Savio, one of the movement’s leaders, was “an intractable fanatic” who spoke the “language of the gutter”, and whose objective was the destruction of the university.

On one occasion Savio bit the leg of a policeman who was stepping on protesters. According to his biographer Robert Cohen, professor of social studies education at New York University, this episode is hardly representative of Savio’s otherwise self-restrained behaviour, and yet it is significant because “it speaks to an element of rage that helped fire the rebellion”. Anger at injustice might not always be expressed courteously.

Dirks’ email also drew problematic distinctions between “free speech and political advocacy”, “debate and demagoguery”, where only “free speech” and “debate” were deemed desirable features of campus life. But, as many noticed, political advocacy is not in opposition to free speech: it is its very essence. The student protest of 1964 began precisely as a reaction against the campus administration’s decision to prohibit political advocacy on campus. That same year, Time magazine attributed to Savio “a sense of demagoguery and a flair for martyrdom”. Sometimes a demagogue is simply someone whose ideas we do not like.

Other commentators, however, have taken a more charitable view of the chancellor’s message. They argue that he did not aim to set up a new policy that would limit free speech on campus – a point made by Dirks himself in a follow-up message. Instead, it was an invitation to the campus community to cherish the virtue of civility, and strive to create an environment in which the right to free speech can be courteously exercised, heard and engaged.

Berkeley Occupy Cal demonstrators

The genealogy of this position can also be traced back to the 1964 protest. Savio famously took off his shoes before climbing on to the roof of a police car that was blocked by an improvised sit-in and using it as a stage to address the students. He did not want to damage public property. On that day, he referred to the freedom of expression as “a reciprocal thing, a complementary right [being] freedom to hear arguments expressed”.

In another speech, following the Free Speech Movement’s final triumph in December 1964, Savio reflected on the need to use the newly won freedom responsibly: “Now…we have finally gotten into a position where we have to consider being responsible, because now we have the freedom within which to be responsible.” Savio is not talking about introducing new regulations: the “freedom to hear” and the responsibility he invokes are based on conscience. What he’s saying is that discussing the nature of our political discourse is something worth doing, always.

Dirks’ email was sent as thousands of copies of Cohen’s biography of Savio, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (2009), were being distributed on campus to celebrate the anniversary. The image of Savio that emerges from this book is that of a principled and uncompromising man who saw his battle for civil rights as, in his own words, a kind of “secularized liberation theology”.

The cautious and ambiguous language of Dirks’ email, its invitation to consider the limits of free speech rather than fully endorsing it, struck the wrong note with many. Furthermore “civility” has become a fraught term on American campuses.

This summer, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign withdrew its job offer to Steven Salaita, an academic whose angry postings and expletives on Twitter about Israel were deemed “uncivil”. Other university administrators have referred to civility, or the lack thereof, while discussing the limits of academic freedom and freedom of speech, especially in relation to the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The American Historical Association commented that civility is a “laudable ideal, and many of us wish that American public life had more of it today”. But imposing the requirement of civility on speech and punishing infractions would inhibit “the full exchange of ideas that both scholarly investigation and democratic institutions need”.

This is hardly the first time that the memory of the Free Speech Movement has been reactivated, mobilised and contested. It inspired large anti-Vietnam war demonstrations that began as early as 1964, while in 1969 the students’ demand for scholarly programmes that would focus on histories of under-represented minorities drew the National Guard to the campus – a decision made by Ronald Reagan, the governor of California at the time.

By then, the Free Speech Movement had come to symbolise all that the university administrators did not like about the 1960s. On the movement’s 20th anniversary in 1984, a major anti-apartheid student protest began that eventually forced the university to divest from all firms that did business in South Africa. But not before 18 months of intense confrontation, as the campus and the University of California administrations argued that foreign companies were a progressive force for change.

In 2011, the Occupy Cal movement brought thousands of students to Sproul Plaza, the theatre of the 1964 gatherings, to demonstrate against budget cuts, tuition fee increases and more generally against the management of public universities in the wake of the financial crisis. The continuity with Savio’s critique of the university as an inhumane knowledge factory seemed obvious to most participants and commentators.

Mario Savio speaking at Berkeley Free Speech Movement, 1964

The university had closed down the space in which political advocacy would take place, in line with the Cold War ideal of campus life as politically neutral

The university’s administration and the campus police have a record of mishandling these protests. On 7 December 1964, a large audience gathered in Berkeley’s Greek Theater to hear about the administrative response to the student protest. As Savio began criticising the administrators who had spoken before him, he was grabbed by the police and dragged off stage. The next day staff voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Free Speech Movement, sealing its final victory.

In 1969 and in the mid-1980s, students were confronted by campus police and arrested. In 2011 the police used batons to clear hundreds of peacefully protesting students from Sproul Plaza. Robert Birgeneau, the chancellor at the time, commented that locking arms to resist arrest was an example of “not non-violent civil disobedience”. Inevitably, such brutality has fostered a climate of mistrust towards the administration. Carol Denney, an activist and musician, quipped that these disproportionate reactions have been key “to upholding a proud Berkeley tradition”.

One thing I find admirable of campus protest at Berkeley is the way it tends to focus on concrete issues, without losing sight of the fundamental political questions that these issues embody. Even before the Free Speech Movement, early militant students praised what they called “consequential speech”: talking about key issues in ways that make a difference to people’s lives. One example would be the simple and effective practice of attaching “Fair Bear” badges to the windows of those Berkeley businesses that treated student workers fairly.

Typically, student protests have been triggered by real concerns with social justice. The Free Speech Movement itself did not emerge as the defence of an abstract principle. Savio and other future leaders of the movement had participated in the civil rights battle that the black-led student movement had waged in the early 1960s.

In the summer of 1964, Savio was helping to register black voters in Mississippi, while teaching in “freedom schools”, amid a climate of escalating racial violence. It was a battle for social justice in America. Those students returned to the Berkeley campus committed to continuing their anti-racist campaign. But the university administration had closed down the space in which political advocacy, rallies and fundraising would normally take place, in line with the Cold War ideal of campus life as politically neutral. The free speech restrictions hampered the student movement’s civil rights work. To Savio, who had been recruiting black voters to register in Ku Klux Klan-infested areas, the choice was very clear: “I’m going to betray the people whom I’ve endangered now that I’m back at home?” He thought that “it would be shameful not to stand up” against the decision of the administration.

That September, students for the first time brought to a university campus the mass civil disobedience tactics that they had learned in Mississippi, opening up the season of student protest.

The real beginning of the movement, as noted by Cohen, was not in Berkeley, but in black-led anti-segregation protests such as the 1960 sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the 1963 campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. It originated in a battle for social justice and equality. It was not about abstract rights but about the real possibility to exercise them.

A significant part of the current debate on free speech and civility is legalistic in nature. But Savio and his fellow protesters were not interested merely in lecturing on the First Amendment. To them, the First and Fourteenth Amendments were the tools necessary to “bind up the wounds which separate society”, as Savio put it – the wounds caused by racism and inequality. Theirs was a battle to win free speech rights that could be used to democratise America.

This autumn, the words of Berkeley’s chancellor provoked an intense debate on the way we talk about politics on campus – and what we should make of the off-campus implications of that conversation. I cannot think of a more appropriate way to mark the anniversary of the events of 1964.

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