Former Fitchburg Freedom Fighters Reunite to Share Triumph

September 15, 2011

Today, The Boston Globe has a compelling article (free sign-up required) about a group of former college newspaper staff members from Fitchburg State College who fought against their administration for their First Amendment rights and won back in 1969. Now, more than 40 years later, they are reconvening at what has become Fitchburg State University to share their free-press triumph with students.

The article tells the story of how John Antonelli, at the time a junior and editor of the campus newspaper, the Cycle, led other Cycle staffers in 1969 in filing suit against college President James J. Hammond in federal court, after the school’s administration pulled the newspaper’s funding over what it saw as "inappropriate content, including profanity and sexual innuendo" during a time period rife with turmoil and controversy. The Globe writes:

Like many college campuses in 1969, Fitchburg State was struggling mightily with the generation gap. The Vietnam War was raging.

[ … ]

"There was so much in the air, you couldn’t really hold down this cultural energy,” Antonelli said. "But they were doing exactly that on the Fitchburg campus. We knew we were standing right on top of the First Amendment. It felt to me like a challenge.”

In one issue in fall 1969, the newspaper’s local printer blocked out a four-letter word. For the next issue, Antonelli decided to publish a sexually charged excerpt of an autobiographical manuscript by activist Eldridge Cleaver.

The printer, who worked out of his garage in Fitchburg, alerted Hammond. When Antonelli, McNamara, and freshman contributor Mark Rice arrived at the print shop to work on the layout, the president confronted them. The school was withholding their funding, he said.

Antonelli and his fellow editors sought out the help of student journalists at other state colleges to get their censored issue publicized, and Antonelli filed suit. In February 1970, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ruled in favor of the students, citing "the potentially great value of a free student voice in an age of student awareness and unrest.”

What powerful words. We hope that student journalists across the nation take heed of Judge Garrity’s guidance and are inspired by Antonelli’s tenacity to stand up for their rights when facing free speech opponents. For more details, be sure to read the story in full at The Boston Globe.