It’s the Anniversary of the Free Speech Movement

UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza and accompanying Sather Gate are familiar sights to Berkeley students, who cross through and under them on a regular basis, but they’re iconic to the free speech movement, which started 50 years ago when Berkeley students fought back against limitations of free speech rights on campus.

In 1964, many Berkeley students were engaged in the Civil Rights movement, taking the summer of ’64 to travel, participate in voter registration programs, get involved with protests, and connect with a variety of communities in search of support and solidarity. They took their experiences back to Berkeley with them, and wanted to continue their political activism even as they pursued an education.

So they started tabling on Sproul Plaza, with pamphlets about voter registration, the civil rights movement, and the culture of change sweeping across the United States. To the shock of students, however, university administration shut their informative movement down, sparking days of occupation, protests, sit-ins, rioting, and more. The free speech movement (FSM) was born, and exploded off the Berkeley campus to colleges across the United States. Suddenly, the imperative for student free speech became inescapable, and even students who hadn’t been heavily involved in activism before were drawn in.

The newly released oral history of the FSM provides access to archives of fascinating stories from people who were there on the ground, offering insight into how the experience changed college for many people. It also had a profound effect on United States politics; some even argue that it actually served to boost conservatives by creating fear in moderate and conservative communities as people shrank back from college students viewed as threatening or intimidating. In a quest for politicians who would put down the unrest on college campuses, some voters turned to newbies on the political scene like former actor Ronald Reagan, for example.

Events of the FSM profoundly changed student free speech rights, opening the floor to a more robust debate on college campuses — if you cross Sproul today, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find people tabling or handing out fliers on a range of subjects, from Palestine to religious groups. Even the pouring rain doesn’t necessarily keep free speech advocates away.

At the same time, though, college campuses have been experiencing a chilling effect in recent years that has brought the full freedom of speech on campus into question.

With more colleges relying on adjunct faculty, for example, many instructors are unwilling to risk unpopular or radical speech on campus for fear it might threaten their jobs. Earlier this year, the University of Illinois blocked the hiring of prospective professor Steven Salaita for “incivility” in discussions about Israel and Palestine. Numerous colleges and universities have speech codes which broadly ban “hate speech” (a defensible ban according to Supreme Court precedent) but which also leave the window open to bans on other kinds of speech.

The boundaries between “civility,” free speech, hate speech, and civil liberties can become heated, especially in an era where the push for civil rights is expanding and still in flux; and where people have heated and passionate opinions on a number of social issues.

Groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have represented students and instructors in a variety of cases involving campus free speech and the suspected suppression of same. Their work highlights the fact that while the FSM may have opened the doors to campus free speech, the issue is far from resolved, and that some students along with faculty continue to experience suppression of their right to express themselves.

Photo credit: Sergio Feria.

49 comments

Ray C.
.3 years ago

Freedom of speech or freedom of expression, the Human Rights are very clear, Article 10 for the Europeans clearly stated under s1, however, s1 is restricted by s2 of the same Article, we do have Freedom of speech but it is controlled,

SEND
Catrin K.

Thanks.

SEND
Donnaa D.
donnaa D4 years ago

ty

SEND
Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper4 years ago

noted

SEND
Past Member
Past Member 4 years ago

Freedom of speech is as important as air !

SEND
Mike Wilkinson
Mike Wilkinson4 years ago

Long live the ideals and the craziness of the counterculture and the Beats.......at 61 I dove into the craziness around 65 - 66 ...... Ronald Reagan represents the backlash of the snobs against the snobs ... and they used the ''War on Drugs'' and drug laws in general to stifle the counterculture and jail them, ruining any chance of implementing any compassionate change.... the CIA-DEA-FBI-Pentagon cabal have truly put the stake in the heart of any meaningfull change that might have occurred helped by a lot of Boomers who bought into the corporate lies, and propaganda....in hope of a cushy retirement ....... an ongoing cultural war that still continues dispite the bully powers thrown about by our corporate controlled ''Democracy''......and their threats of jail and financial banishment.....the dopers will win......

SEND
Susan Brandwein
Susan Brandwein4 years ago

Good article.

SEND
JL A.
JL A4 years ago

the news reinforces how much it is still not resolved

SEND
John B.
John B4 years ago

Thanks so much Ms. Smith for the recap of the Free Speech movement and the very thought provoking article.

SEND
Anne Moran
Anne Moran4 years ago

It may be the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement here in the US,, but in some parts of the world, people are being murdered, thrown in jail, beaten, simply because they dare to speak their minds...

SEND