From the Archives: The Fight for Freedom of Speech at UC Berkeley Helps Spark the Social Revolution of the 1960s

By August 29, 2012

In theory, freedom of speech on college campuses should be a given. All public universities must abide by the First Amendment, and few secular private institutions explicitly disavow it. The problem arises when schools adopt policies that have the effect of curtailing freedom of expression in practice. Fifty years ago, the students at the University of California, Berkeley, faced exactly this dilemma. The administration banned political advocacy from public spaces on campus and did not respond meaningfully to three months of student protests, choosing instead to single out the student leaders of this "Free Speech Movement" (FSM) for punishment. Some 800 students took over the main administration building on December 3, 1964, in protest; the following morning, the Berkeley police forcibly cleared the building and arrested the protesters. After a mass trial, they were convicted of trespassing and some for resisting arrest. The presiding judge ordered that each defendant explain his or her actions in a letter prior to sentencing. The result, which can be accessed at the UC Berkeley FSM website,* is a portrait of the reasoning of the students who chose to occupy the administration building. 

The philosophical question of if, or when, a person should engage in civil disobedience is an important one, although beyond FIRE’s purview. The FSM letters are interesting because they shed some light on a question at the core of FIRE’s mission:  Why is freedom of speech worth fighting for? The authors of the letters came up with three answers that start with the individual student, move outward to discuss the integrity of the university as an institution, and end with the role of the university and its graduates in society as a whole.  

First, the FSM students realized there could be no true education without freedom of speech

It is cliché to say that only part of learning on a college campus takes place in a classroom or a library, but that does not lessen the value of the informal exchange of ideas and engagement with the pressing societal issues that a university should foster. As one student put it: "An education in a vacuum is not a true education, it is only academic training for a career." [E] The FSM students lamented the danger in Berkeley’s decision to ban tables for advocacy groups on its campus not just because this decision violated the abstract principles embodied in the First Amendment, although that was important to them. Equally important to them was the fact that censorship threatened the quality of each person’s individual university experience: "[P]olitical activity, as represented by the tables, is a quite important part of the educational process of the University." [B]

Once the Berkeley administration took away the opportunity for debate by preventing essentially all public advocacy, its students realized the paramount importance of unfettered discourse. Although "[a]ny institution, public or private, must make requirements of its members[,] . . . it would defeat the purpose of a university to restrict speech, an area so vital to the achievement of its educational goals." [M] The FSM students saw value in being able to sculpt their own education by exploring subjects outside of the official curriculum. As one student wrote, "I found the University’s courses fascinating and useful as background, but learning the problems of today and working to influence the future is a more important part of education. The administration of an educational institution is wrong to try to end all useful argumentation and action." [M] 

Second, the students concluded that when Berkeley suppressed political advocacy, it betrayed one of its fundamental purposes because "the right to speak freely is a most precious one, particularly in a center of learning." [W-Z]

The students also recognized that by suppressing open dialogue, Berkeley was betraying its role as a university. Since the Middle Ages, universities have been places where open debate was tolerated to a greater extent than was usual in other segments of society, in recognition of the fact that intellectual advancement is only possible with unfettered (or at least less-fettered) inquiry. Or, as one Berkeley student wrote the judge:  "As a student of the natural sciences (zoology) I am deeply committed to a free and open inquiry into all subjects. Without a fully free and open forum I feel a student cannot think in the broad frames required to advance science and knowledge." [N-P]

A university does more than impart facts. It also teaches skills such as how to craft a written argument, design an experiment, or analyze data. But one of the most important of these skills is the ability to engage in effective advocacy: the ability to marshal facts in a logical order in verbal expression to convince others to follow a certain course of action or accept a particular point of view. This skill is critical to practically every professional endeavor, whether it be negotiating a business deal, obtaining financial support from investors or other funders, selling a product or idea, advocating for approval of a new medical procedure, or getting elected. The university is the natural place to learn how to exchange ideas effectively. When Berkeley limited the opportunity for debate and free exchange of ideas, the "very nature of the university as a sanctuary for the exchange of ideas seemed threatened." [T-V] In addition, students lose the opportunity to learn how to express themselves, a loss that this FSM participant recognized: "[The activists] were helping me to see all sides of many questions that are often represented as having only one side. They were even raising questions that I was too timid to articulate, and they were beginning to formulate answers. It seemed unfair for the administration to try to silence them for activities so obviously educational." [T-V] 

Third, censorship on campus would prevent the university from playing a constructive role in society and would poorly prepare students to become engaged citizens.

Finally, many of the students recognized another role that Berkeley, as a university, played in society in general—it provided a bridge from adolescence to full participation as a citizen: "I seek higher education because of a desire to become a wiser and more effective citizen." [H] The university’s role as an arena for professional training was only a part (and perhaps not even the most important part) of its purpose. It was also meant to be a place where students could become informed about current issues and prepare to deal with those issues once they entered full public life. The university was a place where people had the time, and even the obligation, to inform themselves, debate, recalibrate, and refine their ideas based on the new information received. As one student explained: "The University is the most natural arena for political dialogue; for here those citizens upon whom future generations will depend for leadership are devoting a great proportion of their waking hours to the acquisition of knowledge and to reflecting upon it. Here is the laboratory of our dynamic society…. The University must not only be tolerant of active citizenship; the role of the University is to teach it." [H]

In 1964, the foremost issue facing the country was civil rights. In the Bay Area, students were among the most active members of the civil rights movement. Cutting off access to information about activities and hindering recruitment on campus was seen by students as an effort to cripple the advancement of civil rights not only in the immediate area, but also in the nation as a whole. Many students devoted their vacations, especially the long summer break, to active participation in marches and other protests in the South. As one FSM member summarized: "To inhibit the communication between student groups and prospective members and participants is to directly inhibit the effective functioning of the civil rights movement." [M]

Berkeley students wanted to be in the midst of this seminal debate about civil rights. Instead, by cutting off information and political advocacy, the Berkeley administration was hindering student involvement in the civil rights movement. There was even a suggestion that the administration was acting at the behest of conservative leaders who wanted to cripple the civil rights movement by limiting student participation.  Whatever the reason, the Berkeley administration acted to curb freedom of speech at a critical moment. The Civil Rights Act had been in effect for only two months, and the Voting Rights Act would not be passed for almost another year. Martin Luther King, Jr. had written his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail 18 months before, but the March on Montgomery, Alabama, would not take place until the following year. 

Given its later reputation for espousing radical causes, it is important to remember how the University of California, Berkeley, acted when first faced with students working to secure equal rights for all citizens. Looking back 50 years later, the importance of that fight for civil rights is obvious. At the time, though, the importance of, and even the need for, a civil rights movement was a matter of great dispute. Without the guarantees of the First Amendment, there is no reason to assume that students would have been able to voice their beliefs at all. The students of that time recognized the connection between their freedom of expression on campus and the survival of the civil rights movement, and fought for the one to secure the other. It is worth listening to their voices a half-century later to remember the power of speech to transform the society and the importance of always maintaining free access to the proverbial soapbox.

* The letters are anonymous but organized by the last name of the author and grouped into several PDFs on the website. The links will take the reader to the page where the text is quoted. Letters in brackets [] in this essay indicate the first letter of the author’s last name in order to facilitate a search for the original source.

From the Archives is an occasional series by FIRE exploring the history the fight for freedom of speech on American campuses and its influence on our development as a nation.

Schools: University of California, Berkeley