It started with a small picket line on the steps of UC Berkeley’s administration building, Sproul Hall, in September 1964 to protest a new ban on campus political activity. Within two weeks, up to 3,000 students were sitting in the plaza, surrounding a police car to prevent it from taking a protester to jail. By early December, a Free Speech Movement strike brought the campus to a standstill, 800 students were arrested in a sit-in, and the faculty voted to endorse the students’ free speech rights.
It was the beginning of a seismic shift in American culture, one being celebrated – and analyzed, debated and perpetuated – in numerous Free Speech Movement 50th Anniversary events taking place on and off the Berkeley campus through December. The panel discussions, lectures, films, exhibitions, concerts and rallies will address not only the FSM but everything from ongoing free speech issues to environmental activism, workers’ rights, civil rights, the student loan crisis and America’s growing income gap. The diversity of topics is a testament to how rapidly and widely the FSM’s influence was felt.
By the spring of ’65, thousands of newly fledged Berkeley activists, including this reporter, turned their attention to Vietnam, making the city a vanguard of the antiwar movement. The energy the FSM unleashed spread through campuses across the country, with protests and “takeovers” everywhere from San Francisco State to the University of Michigan to Columbia and abroad.
The 1968 Sorbonne student occupation grew into riots that almost brought down the French government. New movements were born, ranging in focus from Third World studies and educational reform to women’s and gay liberation to unions for farmworkers and teaching assistants.
And it was the end of an age-old, paternalistic university policy of acting in loco parentis – “in the place of the parent.”
“It happened all over,” says playwright Joan Holden, whose new play “FSM” will be staged at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as part of the FSM 50th Anniversary Reunion next weekend. “The youth revolt – and it really was that – shifted the conversation enormously. It broadened the parameters of the culture.
“Can you say the antiwar movement wouldn’t have happened without the FSM? The women’s movement? No, you can’t. But you can certainly say that it was a huge spark. Sometimes there is an event that jump-starts the culture, that sets off a historical wave. This was one.”
The impact was not one-sided. Many commentators have argued, and many FSM veterans ruefully agree, that a conservative blowback against campus unrest led to the election of Ronald Reagan as California governor – and, consequently, the state’s gradual reduction of financial support for higher education.
But there is no denying that 50 years after the FSM began, the issue of free speech continues to reverberate, particularly among the Millennial generation, whether it’s the debate over Internet freedoms, the Edward Snowden case, human rights issues across the globe, or any perceived new moves to regulate the content of speech on campuses.
“We changed the image of students from panty raiders to political activists,” says FSM veteran Lynne Hollander, the widow of FSM leader Mario Savio and chair of the 50th anniversary reunion. “We were the first big movement on a white college campus. There’d been lots of stuff with black colleges in the South, but we spread that to the Northern campuses.
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Free Speech Movement at UC sparked change across U.S. beyond