Living Through the UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement of 1964

As difficult as it may be believed, a lot of freedom of speech activities that we now take for granted were actually not allowed in many college campuses in the U.S. about 50 years ago.   Activities, such as advocacy for civil rights causes, recruitment of people to support off-campus activities like voter registration drives or religious missionary work, or solicitation of donations to combat hunger, are taken for granted by today’s college students everywhere in the U.S.  However, in the fall of 1964 they were all forbidden activities at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley and many other college campuses in the U.S.  At that time students on campus could discuss these activities intellectually, but they were forbidden to advocate actions to support causes no matter how noble those causes were.

That was the reason why students at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964 started the Free Speech Movement (FSM) and triggered a new generation of student activism across the campuses of America. It is important to note that the initial protest had support from students across the political spectrum, not just the radical left, but also young democrats, young republicans, and religious organizations, as you can see from the dress attires of the protesters in the photo below. It is true that when the FSM took on more civil disobedience actions such as sit-ins, many of these students, but not all, from the more conservative organizations no longer joined in those particular actions although they may still be supportive of the basic goal of the FSM.



Photo of protesters near the entrance of Sather Gate in the Sproul Hall Plaza at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1964

(from the Bancroft Library University Archive)

Background:  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states in part that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.”  Today, the First Amendment is interpreted in a broad way, allowing us to speak freely about any issue including urging and recruiting other people to take (legal) actions or solicit donations for a cause.  We understand that freedom of speech is not absolute, because there are certain restrictions, e.g., if the speech could cause harm to other people (such as making a libelous accusation or yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre), or is inciting other people to engage in illegal activities.

In the early 1960s at the University of California [1], the governing body of the university known as the Board of Regents followed a much narrower interpretation of the First Amendment governing students’ speeches on campus.  This narrow interpretation would provide the freedom to voice an opinion, but not the freedom to advocate actions to support that opinion.  This means that on campus one could speak out that Black Americans in our country, especially in the South, did not have equal rights including the right to vote, but one could not encourage and recruit other people to go help with voter registration in the South.  One also was not allowed on campus to solicit donations to help combat hunger or send people to voter registration drives in the South.

Why did the Board of Regents adopt such narrow interpretation of the First Amendment for campus activities? First, there was the belief that within a university campus, the university’s administration could impose some restrictions on freedom of speech which normally would be allowed off campus.  More importantly, the Regents were more concerned with the political pressure from the political powers of the right in California and the public’s concern that too much freedom was given to students, so they did not pay enough concern that it is the university’s function to question and seek new and better alternatives to the status quo.  We need to keep in mind that just a few years earlier in the 1950s, there was McCarthyism, and that the University of California starting in 1949 required a loyalty oath of its faculties in order to retain employment, until the California Supreme Court rescinded that requirement in 1954.  It should be noted that such restriction in 1964 on free speech on campus was already much better than in the previous decade, when in 1952 and 1956 it was forbidden to invite even the Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson to speak on the University of California Berkeley campus.

Starting in September 1959, perhaps realizing that their restriction on freedom of speech on campus was too restrictive for students to accept, the Board of Regents and Clark Kerr, President of the University of California System, decided to designate a 26’x40’ strip of space at the edge of the entrance of the South side of the Berkeley campus on Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue that allows advocacy and donation solicitation. Since the university was transferring this space to the city of Berkeley, this space was considered off campus, and therefore it did not violate the Board of Regents’ on-campus University policy (it was learned later that for some reason, the actual transfer never took place).

What Triggered the FSM in Fall 1964?  On September 14, 1964, at the order of UC Berkeley Chancellor Edward Strong [2] and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Alex Sheriffs, the Dean of Students Katherine Towle put out an announcement that the 26’x40’ strip of space that allowed advocacy would be withdrawn starting on September 21, 1964.  This would prohibit among other activities, encouraging people to participate in an anti-discrimination rally, recruiting people to join the civil rights movement, soliciting donations, or using university facility for the purpose of religious worship, exercise, or conversion.  This was a surprise decision that was made without the concurrence or knowledge of President Kerr who was flying back from Tokyo on the day of the order.  Even though the announcement came from Dean Towle, she did not agree with the policy and was ordered to do so by the Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor.  The response from the students from various organizations was immediate and flabbergasted.  Keep in mind that the civil rights movement has been main stream news since the mid or late 1950s, and advocating and recruiting students to help with voter registration drives in the South was a major activity on campus in the previous few summers.  The student activists were already unhappy with the University’s restriction of freedom of speech within the campus and were barely satisfied with having that restriction lifted on that 26’x40’ strip of space on the edge of campus at Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue.  The removal of this tiny advocacy space was like the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Dissatisfaction with this new decision among student organizations was fairly across the board.  It is not clear why this change was made by the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor; perhaps they learned that this advocacy space had not been transferred from the University to the city of Berkeley, and that the conservative newspaper Oakland Tribune was going to expose this and accuse the University of not following the Regents’ policy of no advocacy on campus property.  In his recollection of the FSM more than 30 years later, [3] President Kerr called this a great blunder by Chancellor Strong.  Even though he immediately met with Chancellor Strong and tried unsuccessfully to change Chancellor Strong’s policy, he called his action or inaction of not overruling Chancellor Strong’s policy as another great blunder.  However, even in this recollection more than 30 years later, President Kerr still did not realize, or did not want to admit, that the FSM was asking for freedom of speech on the whole campus, and not just on a small strip of space at the edge of the campus.

Confrontation and Civil Disobedience of the FSM:  Representatives of various student organizations immediately discussed and objected to this new restrictive policy.  In spite of several petitions and negotiations, they were unsuccessful to get the University administration to reverse this policy.  The protesting students’ attitude can be summed up by these remarks of Jackie Goldberg, one of the spokespersons for the protesting groups:  “We’re allowed to say why we think something is good or bad, but we’re not allowed to distribute information as to what to do about it.  Education should be more than academics.  We don’t want to be armchair intellectuals.  For a hundred years, people have talked and talked and done nothing. We want to help build a better society.”

The student groups continued their protests, and their actions escalated to picketing, setting up tables with advocacy literature and soliciting funds in direct violation of then University policy, and an all-night sit-in on September 30, 1964 at Sproul Hall, the main University administration building. It was during this sit-in that the name Free Speech Movement (FSM) was born.  The end result of these protests was that eight students were summoned for disciplinary action, which later resulted in their suspension.

The protests continued with two changes. One was that the student demands now included no disciplinary action against those who had received summons.  The other was that as the protesting actions sometimes included civil disobedience, the students groups were no longer always a united front.  Some students and student groups would join in protest activities as long as they did not lead to any unlawful activity, and sometimes there might even be open disagreements in debating on the tactics chosen.

The FSM continued to develop during the next three months.  Here I just want to mention three major events during those three months.

Police Car Became the Podium for Protestors:  The first major event occurred late in the morning of October 1, 1964, the morning after the all-night sit-in inside Sproul Hall, a former student Jack Weinberg who was soliciting funds at a campus CORE [4] table in front of the Sproul Hall steps. He was confronted by University police. When he refused to identify himself and leave the table, he was arrested. He went limp, and the police had a police car driven to Sproul Hall Plaza to take him away. But the police car was immediately surrounded by hundreds of students who were gathering there for the noon protest rally. The police car was immobilized for the next 32 hours. Student protest leaders, such as Mario Savio, the main face of the FSM, would occasionally speak to the protest crowd on top of the roof of this police car. This scene of the stranded police car surrounded by hundreds of students and being used as the podium for protest rallies, together with a few other photos such as the one we showed at the beginning of this article, became historical archival photos of the FSM.

It should be pointed out that some of these civil disobedience tactics turned away the people who were neutral and even some of the former supporters of the FSM.  There was even an anti-protest demonstration led by members of some of the campus fraternities and residence halls.  In an October 2, 1964 editorial, the student newspaper the Daily Californian wrote “The demonstrators say that the campus administration is no longer open for discussion.  How can the demonstrators themselves be open for rational discussion when the basic issues of solicitation of funds, recruitment of members and `mounting social and political action’ have been wholly overshadowed by defiance?”

This episode of immobilizing the police car for 32 hours was resolved peacefully after representatives of the student demonstrators, faculty, and the Inter-Faith Council met with President Kerr and Chancellor Strong and reached an agreement containing the following main points:

  • The student demonstrators shall desist from all forms of their illegal protest against University regulations.
  • A committee representing students (including leaders of the demonstration), faculty, and administration will immediately be set up to conduct discussions and hearing into all aspects of political behavior on campus and its control, and to make recommendations to the administration.
  • Activity may be continued by student organizations in accordance with existing University regulations.
  • The President of the University has already declared his willingness to support deeding certain University property on Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue to the City of Berkeley or to the ASUC. [5]
  • The arrested man will be booked, released on his own recognizance, and the University (complainant) will not press charges.
  • The duration of the suspension of the eight students will be submitted within one week to the Student Conduct Committee of the Academic Senate (part of the UC Berkeley faculty organization).

This means that the issue of freedom of speech reverts back to the rules of pre-September 14, 1964 that prohibits political advocacy and solicitation of funds on campus, but allows those activities on the 26’x40’ strip of land on the edge of the campus.

December 2, 1964 Mass Sit-In and Arrest at Sproul Hall:  Besides protest rallies, there were also many negotiations and discussions between the FSM leaders and the University administration over the next two months of October and November. However, no agreement was reached on the key issue of the FSM:  On-campus political activities should have the full freedom of speech as off-campus political activities, and this freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution should be available anywhere on campus, and not just on a tiny strip of land on the edge of the campus.  This lack of progress on this key FSM issue led to a massive rally at Sproul Hall Plaza on December 2, 1964 and the subsequent overnight mass sit-in that evening inside Sproul Hall. When the protesters refused to leave Sproul Hall, Governor Edmund G. Brown and the University administration had the police moved in shortly after 3 AM on December 3 and arrested close to 800 students.

Involvement of the UC Berkeley Faculty:  As already mentioned previously, the UC Berkeley faculty was involved on and off on the issue of freedom of speech of the FSM as well as on the issue of whether and how students should be disciplined.  After the massive arrest on December 3, the faculty then played a critical role in bringing the FSM to an end.  At their meeting on December 8, the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate met and passed a resolution containing the following points:

  1. On-campus political activity shall be subject to reasonable regulations to prevent interference with the normal functions of the University; that the regulations now in effect for this purpose shall remain in effect provisionally pending a future report of the Committee on Academic Freedom concerning the minimal regulations necessary.
  2. The content of speech or advocacy should not be restricted by the University, except for any possible restriction from Item #1.
  3. There should be no disciplinary action against any member of the University for activity connected with the FSM prior to December 8.
  4. Future disciplinary measures in the area of political activity shall be determined by a committee appointed by and responsible to the Academic Senate.

Basically the Berkeley faculty endorsed the FSM’s key objective, i.e., on-campus freedom of speech, and at the same time requesting no disciplinary action against any University member for any action prior to December 8.  This was a major victory for the FSM as it found a powerful and influential partner to negotiate with the Regents and the University administration

Decision of the Board of Regents on December 18, 1964:  On December 17, one day before the Regents’ meeting on December 18, representatives of the Academic Senate met with representatives of the Board of Regents, explaining the Academic Senate’s December 8 resolution . On December 18, although the Regents did not adopt the Berkeley Academic Senate’s December 8 resolution, it did pass a resolution with the following main points:

  1. The Regents direct the administration to preserve law and order on the campuses of the University of California, and to take the necessary steps to insure orderly pursuit of its educational functions.
  2. The Regents reconfirm that ultimate authority for student discipline within the University is constitutionally vested in the Regents, to be delegated to the President and Chancellors, who will seek advice of the appropriate faculty committees in individual cases.
  3. The Regents will undertake a comprehensive review of University policies with the intent of providing maximum freedom on campus consistent with individual and group responsibility.  A committee of Regents will be appointed to consult with students, faculty and other interested persons and to make recommendations to the board.
  4. Pending results of this study, existing rules will be enforced.  The policies of the Regents do not contemplate that advocacy or content of speech shall be restricted beyond the purview of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

The last sentence in Item 4 essentially adopted the key objective of the FSM, and acknowledged that the protesting students had a legitimate grievance from the very beginning.  The FSM won a significant victory for freedom of speech for not only the University of California Berkeley campus, but for many other campuses across the U.S.  It helped to initiate a new generation of student activism for civil rights, the anti-Vietnam War movement, as well as many other causes.  To acknowledge the contribution of the FSM to freedom of speech, the University on December 3, 1997 renamed the “Sproul Hall Steps” as the “Mario Savio Steps”.

Because the Regents did not dismiss all disciplinary actions against people who had received summons or were arrested, many leaders of the FSM were very critical of the Regents’ decision.

What Did the FSM Mean to Me?  Although I was a senior at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964, I was politically immature.  I am not sure that at that time I really understood the subtle differences between on-campus freedom of speech and off-campus freedom of speech, or the subtle differences between what one was not allowed to do on campus but was allowed to do on that 26’x40’ strip of land on the edge of the campus.  Having been brought up respecting authority, I definitely had reservations about advocating civil disobedience, or even just participating in civil disobedience.  So even though I might have been supportive of some of the goals of the FSM, I don’t think I was ever supportive of any sit-in or other illegal civil disobedience actions.  Now with hindsight and more politically mature, I can understand why the FSM leaders adopted actions of civil disobedience.  However, even now I am not certain that they needed to adopt those civil disobedience actions, or at least to the extent that they did, because eventually they could have won the war since their cause was just.  I don’t think the First and Fourteenth Amendments would differentiate on-campus and off-campus with respect to freedom of speech. Although I do agree that disciplinary actions or charges against the large majority of those who were summoned or arrested should be dropped, I believe that if the leaders of a movement were willing to advocate civil disobedience actions in order to achieve their objective, then they should be willing to accept the consequences of those civil disobedience actions.  To do so, these leaders would gain more admiration and support from the public, as did Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

[1]  As well as in many other universities in the U.S.
[2]  The head of the whole university-wide system of the University of California is the President, which was Clark Kerr in 1964, and the head of each University of California campus is the Chancellor which for the Berkeley campus in 1964 was Edward Strong.
[3]  Clark Kerr, ‘Fall of 1964 at Berkeley: Confrontation Yields to Reconciliation,” article in the book The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, edited by Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnik, University of California Press, 2002.
[4]  CORE stands for Congress on Racial Equality, a major civil rights organization for Black Americans.
[5]  ASUC stands for Associated Students of the University of California, which is the official student government at UC Berkeley.

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3 Responses to “Living Through the UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement of 1964”

  1. Tim Zebo says:

    Thanks for this post! It brought back many memories since I was a college junior in ’64. It also invites a comparison with the failed Occupy Wall Street movement. A few years ago I marched with 20,000 people from NY City Hall to the park where OWS protesters were camped. From the speeches and general crowd sentiments, it felt much like the protests of the middle ’60s. And yet for some reason it fizzled out. Your post has me very curious about the differences between the two movements – did one succeed and the other fail because of the “wrongs” each was trying to address, or because of the protest management processes, or something else?

  2. Cynthia says:

    I learned a lot from this post. I wonder whether the death of the President of the US the previous year could have sent distress signals that his New Frontier was not to be, and that triggered some frustration in the populace, particularly students who may have felt certain hopes personally crushed in 1963? Just a thought.
    Tim, perhaps the occupiers had to get back to work, eventually, as they were not students. Also, their aims as far as I know were more general, and thus less likely to lead to a crisp resolution either way. Thirdly, is it completely fizzled?

  3. Tim Zebo says:

    Good points all, Cynthia. You asked, “Is it completely fizzled?” It seems Bernie has influenced the current Dem’s Platform. We’ll see in due time how much of it gets implemented!

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