Free Speech Movement

The Free Speech Movement (FSM) began in 1964 at the University of California, in Berkeley. It was the catalyst for student protest in the United States and in the world during the 1960s–1970s. The movement began as a protest by students, teaching assistants, and faculty against the university’s ban on political activities and sought to establish the right to state political views on campus.

The size of the incoming freshman class at Berkeley grew by 37 percent between 1963–64. Humanities and social majors had risen from 36 to 50 percent in the previous decade. The new students were more socially conscious than their predecessors.

The president of the University of California system, Clark Kerr, anticipated the influx, but failed to anticipate that the old in loco parentis philosophy was impractical in the face of student restlessness and activism. The student left wing began emerging in the late 1950s as the anticommunist fervor of the McCarthy era eased. Some of its leaders were the children of liberal and radical professionals. The student party at Berkeley, SLATE, wanted to end nuclear testing, capital punishment, and the cold war. In 1957 it began running slates of candidates in student elections, and it included civil rights as one of its issues.

Berkeley students in 1960 protested the San Francisco hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), to radicals the most blatant symbol of the 1950s suppression of civil liberties. Police turned fire hoses on the protesters and arrested many of them. The HUAC produced a film, Operation Abolition, that attempted to portray the protesters as subversives, but the movie backfired—it was so poorly done that it supported the liberal case against the committee. It later became a cult classic on campuses.

Mario Savio, the son of a Roman Catholic machinist, entered this climate. Savio spent the 1964 summer teaching at a freedom school in McComb, Mississippi. After returning to Berkeley in September 1964, he learned that the traditional venue for protest, the Bancroft strip of Telegraph Avenue just outside Berkeley’s main gate, was off limits for the handing out of pamphlets, petitions, and recruitment because it had been the scene of demonstrations by students against local businesses that discriminated. The conservative regents pressed the administration into closing the campus and adjacent areas to recruiting and agitation.

The students reacted angrily. SLATE, anti-HUAC groups, civil rights activists, and ordinary students— even some conservative ones—protested the closure. On September 29, they set up tables on the Bancroft strip and refused an order to leave. On September 30, the university officials began taking names. When five protesters were ordered to appear before disciplinary hearings, 500, led by Mario Savio, marched on the administration building. The marchers demanded that they be punished too. The administrators added the three leaders of the march to the five and suspended all eight.

The next day, students received handbills declaring that a fight for speech was under way. Student tables in front of Sproul Hall included representatives from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Du Bois Club, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and half a dozen others. When asked to identify himself, Jack Weinberg at the CORE table refused. When campus police attempted to arrest him, Weinberg went limp in the classic civil disobedience manner. For 32 hours the police car containing Weinberg and the police was unable to move. Finally Kerr and the student representatives compromised. Weinberg was released, the academic senate committee examined the question of suspensions, and the big issue of appropriate political behavior on campus was given to a faculty-studentadministrator committee. That took care of the incident. It did nothing to stop the rebellion.


The FSM wanted an absolute First Amendment free- dom of political activity. When the senate committee announced a compromise, Savio denounced it as prior restraint. On November 9 Savio and his allies put up the tables even though the administration opposed them. The administration did nothing, leading many undergradu- ates to conclude that the administration was picking and choosing, taking on the FSM because it was weak. The undergraduates shifted support back to the FSM.

The faculty senate committee issued its findings on November 13. Six of the eight were to be reinstated, but Savio and Art Goldberg were to be on suspension for six weeks—retroactive to the incident more than six weeks in the past. The regents increased the penalties for Savio and Goldberg. FSM became stronger as the semester ended.

On December 2, in another protest of university action against the FSM, the graduate students went on strike. Four to five thousand heard Savio speak against the grinding of the machine and about the need to resist, and 1,000 to 1,500 students occupied the administration building. Under the authority of Governor Pat Brown, 600 state and county police cordoned off Sproul Hall, and the chancellor ordered the students to leave. Clearing the building of limp protesters took 12 hours. All 773 arrested for trespassing were out on bail the next day.

The strikers were well organized, and with the support of faculty sympathizers turned out thousands of flyers. Most teaching assistants and faculty cancelled classes. Kerr cancelled Monday classes to allow for a meeting where all could hear about his facultyapproved “new era of freedom under law.” When the meeting ended, Savio attempted to speak, but two campus guards dragged him from the stage. To the FSM supporters, it was a blatant denial of free speech. The crowd demanded that Savio be allowed to speak; he announced a rally at Sproul Plaza.


The academic senate meeting on the following day was the largest in memory. Several thousand students outside heard the proceedings over loudspeakers. The senate’s academic freedom committee endorsed all FSM demands, leaving the administration only the power to prevent physical disruption. Conservatives attempted to establish limits, but the proposals passed 824 to 115. Shortly thereafter the FSM ended the strike. The next day SLATE won every student government office. On December 18 the regents refused to accept the faculty committee’s recommendations.

The University of California’s board of regents resisted the pressure initially, but it slowly retreated until, on January 2, 1965, the new acting chancellor, Martin Meyerson, ceded most of the FSM’s basic demands. The regents reinstated the rights of students to set up tables on campus, especially in Sproul Plaza, and to collect money through donations. They could also distribute literature and recruit members. Protests and marches for religious, social, and political causes were once again permitted.

The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was the prototype of the new campus liberalism. It altered the American campus for the foreseeable future. Traditional controls and curricula were gone, and students enjoyed the free exchange of ideas and freedom in general. The Berkeley FSM was but the first round in the generational clash of the 1960s–1970s. It brought to students the tactics of the Civil Rights movement, tools the students would use in protesting the war in Vietnam. Veterans of the 1960s protests would turn into leaders of the women’s rights movement, and both conservatism and liberalism would change. Ronald Reagan would emerge from political obscurity on the issue of opposition to all that the FSM represented.

See also McCarthyism; Vietnam War.


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