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The Free Speech Movement at 50

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The Free Speech Movement at 50

The movement won; free speech lost. September 25, 2014
Photo by Mjlovas

This fall, the University of California at Berkeley is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, a student-led protest against campus restrictions on political activities that made headlines and inspired imitators at colleges and universities around the country. I played a small part in the FSM, and some of those returning for the reunion were once my friends, but I won’t be joining them this time. Though the movement promised an opening toward greater intellectual and political freedom on campus, the result of its efforts was, in fact, the opposite. The great irony is that just as Berkeley now officially honors the memory of the FSM, it exercises more thought control over students than the hated “multiversity” that we rose up against half a century ago.

We early-sixties radicals believed ourselves anointed as a new “tell-it-like-it-is” generation. We promised to transcend the “smelly old orthodoxies” (in Orwell’s phrase) of Cold War liberalism and class-based, authoritarian leftism. Leading the students into the university administration building for the first mass protest, Mario Savio, the FSM’s brilliant leader, from Queens, New York, famously said: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. . . . And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

The Berkeley “machine” now promotes FSM kitsch. The steps in front of Sproul Hall, the central administration building where more than 700 students were arrested on December 2, 1964, have been renamed the Mario Savio Steps. One of the campus dining halls is called the Free Speech Movement Café, its walls covered with iconic FSM photographs and other mementos of the glorious semester of struggle. The university also requires entering freshmen to read a fawning biography of Savio, written by NYU professor and former Berkeley graduate Robert Cohen. A privately sponsored lecture series in Savio’s honor, dominated entirely by leftist speakers, will be hosted by the College of Letters & Science. In making the announcement, Dean of Social Sciences Carla Hesse declared: “I think it is fair to say that the attitude of [the administration] toward the Free Speech Movement has evolved over the past 50 years, from fear to pride in what the students at that time stood up for and what they accomplished.”

Official sanctification of the FSM goes hand in hand with an attack on intellectual diversity on campus. Every undergraduate must now take a course on “theoretical or analytical issues relevant to understanding race, culture, and ethnicity in American society,” administered by the university’s Division of Equity and Inclusion. As Heather Mac Donald has shown, the point of the requirement is to enforce ideological uniformity on campus regarding race and gender issues.

How did this Orwellian inversion occur? It happened, in part, because the claim that the FSM was fighting for free speech for all (i.e., the First Amendment) was always a charade. Within weeks of FSM’s founding, it became clear to the leadership that the struggle was really about clearing barriers to using the campus as a base for radical political activity. Our movement ignored Orwell’s warning that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful.” We distorted the plain meaning of words to gain political advantage and power. Movement radicals turned on American liberalism (which we renamed “Cold War liberalism”) as the evil empire. Liberalism, unfortunately, retreated.

In writing about the protests for the antiwar magazine Liberation, I insisted—against all evidence—that the FSM was a nonideological, democratic movement that “created an important little wedge against the creeping totalitarianism that threatens all of us” and that “white middle-class students in the North also need a liberation movement, for they feel imprisoned and oppressed by a smiling and genial bureaucracy.” My article was included in the “student spokesmen” section of an anthology of essays about the events, appearing beside a Savio commentary titled “An End to History,” in which the FSM leader wrote that the students were struggling “against what may emerge as the greatest problem of our nation—depersonalized, unresponsive bureaucracy. We have encountered the organized status quo in Mississippi, but it is the same in Berkeley.”

I was a 27-year-old New Left graduate student at the time and hereby confess to the youthful sin of hyperbole. Savio, who died in 1996, was a 22-year-old sophomore from Queens, New York when he led the protests. For all his brilliance, he never acknowledged the damage done to the cause of intellectual freedom by conflating the essentially liberal Berkeley administration with the Bull Connors of the racist South.

Other comparisons he used during the struggle were even more troubling. During one of the FSM demonstrations, Savio suggested that the campus cops who had just arrested a protesting student were “poor policemen” who only “have a job to do.” Another student protester then shouted out: “Just like Eichmann.”

“Yeah. Very good. It’s very, you know, like Adolf Eichmann,” Savio replied. “He had a job to do. He fit into the machinery.”

I only realized years later that this moment may have been the beginning of the sixties radicals’ perversion of ordinary political language, like spelling the name of our country “Amerika” or declaring corporate liberalism “fascism in disguise,” while seeing something hopeful and progressive in Third World dictatorships.

Admittedly, Berkeley undergraduates had legitimate complaints against the administration that we all referred to as the “multiversity.” (University of California president Clark Kerr coined the term to describe the emerging role of the big state universities as service centers for business and government.) Students had to deal with uncaring bureaucrats, huge classes, and famous professors who cared only about their specialized research and had no interest in teaching. Movement leaders frequently asserted that an undergraduate could go through four years of a Berkeley education without having a serious intellectual conversation with a tenured professor.

Yet there was another truth that none of us was willing to admit. Contrary to the FSM’s complaint about “oppression” on campus, it actually was the best of times for radical graduate students. We had fellowships and teaching assistantships in some of the nation’s most prestigious academic departments. I recall Berkeley in the early sixties as a sun-drenched, easy-living, cultural mecca, overlooking beautiful San Francisco Bay—which was why so many of us moved across the country from the cold climes of the Northeast and why we were also in no hurry to get our degrees and move on.

Some of us started a magazine called Root and Branch, which became one of the foundational New Left publications. In the inaugural issue, we simultaneously proclaimed opposition to the dominant trends in American society and our independence from the certainties of the old Marxist Left. “We want to look at the world anew and define the problems and alternatives for ourselves,” announced our opening editorial. “We want to re-open the dialogue, to evaluate positions on their merits and the evidence, and not on the basis of where they fit into the spectrum of a left that took shape thirty years ago.”

Our signature political issues were support for the Cuban Revolution and opposition to the liberal Cold War consensus. In this, we followed the lead of our mentor, the radical Columbia University sociologist C. Wright Mills. Our magazine carried articles arguing that Fidel Castro was a new breed of revolutionary—more humanist, more open, even more “hip” than the old-style bureaucratic Communists. In fact, we imagined Castro and Che Guevara as fellow New Leftists. And still, our famous liberal professors respected our dissenting views and recommended us for even more fellowships.

My fellow Root and Branch editor, David Horowitz (who, like most of the other editors, came to Berkeley from New York City), penned a short paperback book called Student, celebrating the vibrant new student movement on the campus. It quickly sold 25,000 copies, an amazing number for a New Left book coming out in 1962. Mario Savio read Student in one sitting in a New York bookstore. He had just enrolled at the Christian Brothers’ Manhattan College but was so inspired by Horowitz’s narrative of radical campus activism that he soon transferred to Berkeley.

Yet most of us radical students could not have imagined a campus rebellion in 1964. Why revolt against an institution that offered such a pleasant sanctuary for our growing movement? And, truth be told, there might not even have been a movement were it not for an incredibly stupid decision by Berkeley administrators to establish new rules regarding political activities on campus.

At the beginning of the 1964–65 academic year, and without any prior consultation, the administration suddenly announced that student clubs would no longer be allowed to set up tables in front of the Bancroft Avenue entrance to the campus for the purpose of soliciting funds and recruiting new members. The clubs had been using this 40-foot strip of sidewalk for years on the assumption that it was the property of the City of Berkeley and therefore constitutionally protected against speech restrictions. But the university now claimed ownership of the strip to justify the new rules. When some of the radical students refused to comply with the ban on political activity, the administration compounded its original blunder by resorting to the campus police. Not surprisingly, the students pushed back, using civil disobedience tactics learned in the Southern civil rights movement.

The Free Speech Movement was born on October 1, 1964, when the campus police tried to arrest a recent Berkeley graduate, Jack Weinberg, just back on campus after spending the summer as a civil rights worker in Mississippi. Weinberg set up a table on the Bancroft strip for the Berkeley chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and then refused to identify himself to the police. Rather than submitting to arrest, he went limp and had to be carried to a police car. Dozens of students then spontaneously sat down around the vehicle, preventing it from leaving the campus. A 32-hour standoff ensued, with hundreds of students camped around the car.

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Mario Savio, also back from a dangerous stint as a civil rights worker in Mississippi, took off his shoes, climbed onto the roof of the police car, and launched into an impromptu speech explaining why the students had to keep resisting the administration’s immoral new rules. Savio later admitted that he, too, had been totally surprised by the administration’s resort to force. Yet in his remarks, he immediately linked the campus speech issue to the civil rights movement in the South. From his perch on top of the police car, Savio laid out the protesters’ demands, insisting that the administration must halt the arrests and then agree that there would be “no arbitrary restrictions of any kind on freedom of speech on this campus.”

And what if the administration refused? Well, then, said Savio, “I am right now publicly serving a notice of warning . . . and a threat to this administration, that they will be subject to continuous direct action by us, and it’s going to be damn embarrassing for them. We’re going to get foreign press, we’re going to get domestic press, and we’re going to get all sorts of organizations against them until they accede to these reasonable demands.” To the administrators, this must have sounded like a weak ultimatum. But it turned out to be prophetic. The FSM continued to defy the administration, and the administration continually overreacted, often with the use of police force. The police-car incident came to an end when the Berkeley administration gave in. Weinberg was released, and the charges against him were dropped.

Not having learned its lesson, the administration again used mass arrests to end the student takeover of Sproul Hall on December 2. Outrage over the arrests of more than 700 protestors then led to a successful student strike and to growing support for the FSM from liberal professors. As Savio foresaw, the Berkeley story attracted national, and even international, attention. Among the notable journalists arriving on campus to write about the FSM protests were A. H. Raskin of the New York Times and Calvin Trillin of The New Yorker. Public intellectuals such as Sidney Hook, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, and Paul Goodman weighed in with articles in prestigious opinion journals. Most portrayed the students as idealists struggling for First Amendment rights against a rigid and blundering administration.

On December 8, Berkeley’s faculty senate voted overwhelmingly to remove all restrictions on speech and student political activity on campus. By the end of the fall semester, the administration had capitulated, and the FSM had achieved a near-total political victory.

That should have ended the matter. Indeed, Savio soon left the political arena, saying that he had no interest in becoming a permanent student leader. For many of the FSM activists, though, it was just the start of a wider revolutionary crusade against the liberal establishment that allegedly abetted racism at home and perpetuated the American empire overseas. The radical students had mastered the new world of political theater and understood the weakness of American liberalism. They used the “free speech” victory to turn the university into a base for increasingly disruptive demonstrations in the wider community, starting with massive protests against the Vietnam War.

I left graduate school and became a journalist with Ramparts magazine. Over the next five years, I wrote about many of the radical student eruptions of the sixties—the March on the Pentagon, Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign, the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, meetings between the antiwar movement and the Vietcong. I became convinced that the Berkeley rebellion was the foundational event of the radical, countercultural sixties. It was during the FSM that the New Left radicals first designated liberalism as the enemy, romanticized Third World revolutions, and broke the long-standing liberal taboo about working with Communists. One of the movement’s most effective leaders was Bettina Aptheker, a 20-year-old sophomore from Brooklyn, New York, who was a proud member of the Communist Party USA. The other FSM leaders rejected the notion that there was anything unusual about a free-speech movement led by a supporter of Soviet totalitarianism.

The radical movement that the FSM spawned soon imploded into violence and mindless anti-Americanism. After helping to instigate riots in Newark, New Jersey (and writing about his accomplishments for The New York Review of Books), New Left stalwart Tom Hayden heard the siren song of the FSM and moved to Berkeley. He settled into one of the city’s many radical communes and rallied students to support the Black Panthers—America’s “internal Vietcong,” according to Hayden—and to create “liberated zones” to serve as Panther sanctuaries. He pushed the Berkeley radicals to learn how to use guns because the revolution was surely coming. Hayden and some movement veterans organized trips to North Vietnam and North Korea. The youthful political pilgrims came back singing the praises of Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung. Left untold by most of the friendly narratives about the FSM and the New Left is the story of how a once-idealistic student movement crossed the line to antidemocratic ideologies and undermined the possibility of a decent Left in America.

Though ostensibly in political retirement, Mario Savio surely became aware that the radical students were turning to extremism and had started supporting speech suppression. In 1988, he gave the commencement address to his son’s high school graduating class at the selective Sidwell Friends School. In that talk, Savio took up the accusation made by University of Chicago professor Alan Bloom in his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind, that the sixties student movements had been a catastrophe for the intellectual mission of the university. “I know of nothing positive coming from that period,” Bloom wrote. “It was an unmitigated disaster for [the American university].”

In defending his generation from Bloom’s charges, Savio cited the awful condition of the country that the FSM was morally bound to oppose—racism, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Sounding like New Left heroes Noam Chomsky and Herbert Marcuse, Savio explained to the graduates: “We came to view America as a racist and imperialist power—covering its tracks with a beguiling opportunity for self-expression and conspicuous consumption for a considerable and privileged part of its population.” Yet Savio didn’t answer Bloom’s specific accusation about the radical students’ baleful influence on higher learning. Instead, he told the graduates that their country was racist, imperialist, and classist—so anything goes.

Since Savio uttered that defense of the FSM, another generation of radical students has moved through the institutions. “Tenured radicals,” in Roger Kimball’s phrase, now dominate most professional academic organizations in the humanities and social studies. They have turned many once-distinguished university departments into bastions of anti-Americanism and apologetics for socialist and Islamist dictatorships. Moreover, the new generation of academics plays rough. Unlike our old liberal professors, who treated my generation of New Left graduate students in a respectful manner, today’s radical professors insist on ideological conformity in their departments and don’t take kindly to dissent by conservative students.

New records have been set for speech suppression on America’s campuses in this 50th anniversary year of the FSM—including a long list of rescinded commencement addresses by “offensive speakers,” such as the anti-Islamist writer Aayan Hirsi Ali (Brandeis University), former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (Rutgers University), and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde (Smith College). But the year’s greatest free-speech disgrace will soon occur at Berkeley, where Bettina Aptheker has been designated as keynote speaker for the September 27 campus rally. After the FSM and for the rest of her academic career, this “free-speech” activist remained a cheerleader for the suppression of free speech in the Soviet Union and other socialist regimes. Today, Aptheker is professor of feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she inducts undergraduate students into what she calls “feminist pedagogy.” She’s also a supporter of Hamas, a revolutionary movement that takes a somewhat different view on free speech and the rights of women. Writing for the Berkeley alumni magazine about the upcoming anniversary events, Aptheker presented her current views on free speech, some of which she will likely repeat in her keynote address:

On the occasion of this 50th anniversary of the FSM . . . it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the ways in which gender, race, class, and sexuality may effect [sic] one’s access to freedom of speech. Although the First Amendment embraces a universal ideal in its wording, it was written by white, propertied men in the 18th century, who never likely imagined that it might apply to women, and/or people of color, and/or all those who were not propertied, and even, perhaps, not citizens, and/or undocumented immigrants. A woman’s freedom of speech is often inhibited by fears of reprisal, for example, if she reveals sexual or domestic violence. There is almost always denial, her speech vilified, her character assassinated. . . . In other words, freedom of speech is a Constitutional guarantee, but who gets to exercise it without the chilling restraints of censure depends very much on one’s location in the political and social cartography. We veterans of FSM were too young and inexperienced in 1964 to know this, but we do now, and we speak with a new awareness, a new consciousness, and a new urgency that the wisdom of a true freedom is inexorably tied to who exercises power and for what ends.

Read it and weep—not only for the FSM’s anniversary but also for the ideal of an intellectually open university, and for America.

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