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The Berkeley Free Speech Movement

by Jo Freeman

Published in Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, edited by Immanual Ness, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004, pp. 1178-1182.

The Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California at Berkeley during the Fall 1964 semester was the first of the 1960s campus student movements to make headlines all over the world. Lasting a little over two months, it ended with the arrest of 773 persons for occupying the administration building, the removal of the campus administration, and a vast enlargement of student rights to use the University campus for political activity and debate. In the longer term it contributed to the election of Ronald Reagan as Governor of California in 1966, and the firing of University President Clark Kerr the following January.


From the 1930s onward, largely in response to fears generated by Communism, the University-wide administration imposed numerous rules designed to keep politics off of all the University campuses. By the time Berkeley Chancellor Clark Kerr became University President in 1958, student groups could not operate on campus if they engaged in any kind of off-campus politics, whether electoral, protest or even oratorical. At the Berkeley campus students spoke, leafleted and tabled on the city sidewalk at the campus edge. When the campus border was moved a block away, this activity moved with it. Since the sidewalk at the new boundary was too narrow for much activity, Kerr authorized the creation of a small plaza just inside the new boundary for student political groups to use. The Regents of the University voted to give the 26 x 40 foot strip at Bancroft and Telegraph to the City of Berkeley, but the transfer never took place. For the next few years student groups of all persuasions used this strip as though it was public property when legally it was still part of the University.

In the Fall of 1963 and the Spring of 1964 the Bay Area was rocked with civil rights demonstrations against employers who practiced racial discrimination. Vast numbers of Berkeley students were recruited for these protests from Bancroft and Telegraph, and they were numerous among the 500 arrests made over several months. This led to demands by some state legislators that the University discipline and control its students. In July, students were recruited to demonstrate at the Republican Convention being held just outside of San Francisco, as well as at several employers in Oakland. An Oakland Tribune reporter found out that this political activity was taking place on the campus proper; when word reached the campus administration, it decided to put a stop to it.


On September 14, 1964 Dean of Students Katherine Towle, at the insistence of Vice-Chancellor Alex Sherriffs, wrote a letter to the student political groups telling them that they could no longer use the plaza at Bancroft and Telegraph to solicit support for "off campus political and social action." Realizing that this would deprive them of the one good spot to reach students and raise funds, 18 student groups from across the political spectrum asked the Dean to reverse the ruling. They soon discovered that she didn't have the power to do this. Calling themselves the United Front the student groups defied the policy by setting up their tables as before, and also in front of the administration building facing Sproul Plaza, where they had never been before. Several students led a rally and march against the "new" regulations without getting prior permission — required by the old rules — to do so. When five tablers were ordered to go to the Dean's office, some 400 students signed a petition of complicity and filled the halls of the Administration building demanding that they too be disciplined. The Deans announced that three names had been added to the "cited students" list and all eight were "indefinitely suspended." At 3:00 a.m. the crowd left the building.

The next day tables were again put up in front of the Administration building. This time the campus police arrested Jack Weinberg, who was sitting behind the CORE table, after he refused to give his name or show his student card. Jack Weinberg was an alumnus, not a current student, and didn't have a card. He did have a long record of civil rights activity, including several arrests the Spring before. The police brought a car onto Sproul plaza and after he went limp, carried him to it. Students spontaneously surrounded the car to keep it from moving and deflated the tires. The police temporarily retreated while thousands of students took over the Plaza.

The car was held hostage for 32 hours. With Jack inside, the police car became the platform for a continual rally. Art Goldberg and his sister Jackie, both experienced student activists, were the leaders of the United Front, but from the top of the car new people emerged who captured the loyalty of the crowd. Mario Savio, a junior who had transferred from Queens, New York the year before, was soon recognized as the most charismatic speaker.

Having no plan or strategy, the United Front made it up as they went along. Students once again occupied the Administration building, clashing with police when they tried to close it early, but they left the building to spend the night around the car. Near midnight, about one hundred fraternity boys surrounded the few hundred students still there to heckle and pelt them with eggs and lighted cigarettes. They finally left after a Catholic priest pled for peace from the top of the car.

The United Front selected a negotiation group, but the campus Administration refused to meet with them. Instead it arranged with several local police forces to arrest everyone who did not leave the plaza by 6:00 p.m. Several hundred police were brought on campus and lined up behind adjacent buildings. In the meantime, Governor Pat Brown ordered President Kerr to seek a peaceful solution with the protestors. Kerr invited them to meet with him at 5:00 p.m. in his office. After a contentious meeting, in which the students disagreed among themselves on what to do, the pact of October 2 was signed by Kerr and the United Front. Everyone returned to Sproul plaza where Mario Savio mounted the car and told the students to disperse.


Jack Weinberg was booked, released, and the University did not press charges. The fate of the eight cited students was referred to a specially created faculty committee, which conducted a hearing that lasted for several weeks. The United Front met and dissolved. In its place the Free Speech Movement was created. It consisted of an Executive Committee of about 50 or so, including the cited students, representatives of existing student groups, plus some new entities (e.g., independent students, grad students, non-students, off-campus religious groups). From its members was elected a Steering Committee of twelve, to monitor negotiations over new rules for student groups.

The composition of the Steering Committee varied over the next two months. In addition to Jack and Mario, Bettina Aptheker and Steve Weissman played key roles. There were no officers, though an informal division of labor developed. Mario was the chief spokesperson; Jack the top tactician, while Steve chaired most of the meetings and Bettina was the voice of reason. An administrative apparatus grew up at Mario's apartment, soon called FSM Central, where meetings were planned, leaflets were drafted and phone calls made. Hundreds of students were energized by the conflict, and on their own produced numerous documents, an FSM button, and even a recording of FSM Christmas carols. Sales of the latter two items were the primary source of funds, plus donations.

An 18-member Campus Committee on Political Activity (CCPA), with equal representation from the administration, the faculty, and the students (four of whom were FSM leaders), met for three weeks without coming to an agreement. The committee favored removal of most of the old rules, permitting students to meet on campus, put up tables, pass out literature, collect funds, and discuss issues. The sticking point was whether students could advocate illegal off-campus actions (i.e. getting arrested at civil rights demonstrations). The FSM held that the only limits on advocacy should be those of the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the courts, and the only punishment should be that dispensed by a judge after a criminal trial. The administration maintained its right to discipline students, and for conduct other than a criminal offense.

The negotiations collapsed over this issue, and the FSM resumed picketing on campus on November 4. In the interim a moratorium of sorts had existed. The student groups did not put their tables up on campus (even in the previously permissible plaza at Bancroft and Telegraph), or leaflet or collect funds, except on the city sidewalk. The Steering Committee decided to end the moratorium and escalate the conflict by putting tables up on campus the next Monday, November 9. This precipitated the biggest spit within the ranks of the FSM.

Ostensibly the final decision maker, the Executive Committee met about once a week. After extensive discussions lasting for several hours, votes were taken among the few who were left. Most decisions were in fact made by the Steering Committee, which met every day, and at some points, decisions were made by Mario and Jack, after consulting with whomever they thought it important to consult with. This plus the escalation in confrontation cracked an existing fault line within the FSM and led to some acrimonious ExCom meetings at which the moderates lost very close votes. As a result the conservative student groups dropped out of the FSM and the liberal groups were sidelined. The radicals were firmly in charge.

The dispute within the FSM over whether to resume negotiations was mooted when the campus Administration disbanded the CCPA and cited a few dozen more students for sitting at tables. Tabling continued, but was ignored by the Administration. In the meantime the faculty committee on the eight cited students recommended that six be retroactively reinstated with only a censure on their records, and that Mario and Art receive six week suspensions. The committee criticized the administration's handling of the matter, especially the "indefinite suspensions" prior to a hearing.

Meeting on November 20, the Regents endorsed the University administration's proposed revision of University rules, which would permit most political activity previously prohibited but allow for discipline of those who used the campus to pursue unlawful off-campus action. Buried in these recommendations was a warning that further disciplinary action would be taken against organizations and students who had violated the old rules after September 30. The FSM's request to address the Regents was denied, but it was allowed to send five observers. Outside, students held a rally and debated what to do. The FSM observers who reported on the Regents' meeting were angry and urged action.

Undecided on how to respond to a partial victory, a bare majority of the FSM Steering Committee voted to occupy the Administration building on Monday, November 23. At the noon rally, Steve Weissman announced that those assembled would debate whether or not to sit-in. After a contentious debate, about 300 students entered the Administration building where the debate continued. Three hours later they decided to leave.

Depressed and demoralized, most within the FSM thought it was dying. However, student anger revived a week later when the campus administration sent letters to four key students — Mario Savio, Art Goldberg, Jackie Goldberg, and Brian Turner — charging them with violating university regulations for leading the October 1st and 2nd demonstrations.

The FSM told students to bring their sleeping bags to a noon rally on Wednesday, December 2. After a spirited rally, featuring famed folk-singer Joan Baez, about 2000 people once again occupied the Administration building. In the middle of the night Governor Brown told the police to clear the building. Arrests started at 3:00 a.m, and took 12 hours. Although the newspapers reported that 801 had been arrested, the process was so muddled that no one knew for weeks that it was only 773, including 735 students. They were collectively known to as "the 800."

A student strike began while the building was being cleared. Faculty raised bail money and drove to the various detention centers to bring the students home. Multiple meetings were held over the weekend by everyone involved — except the Chancellor, who was hospitalized. President Kerr canceled classes for Monday to hold a University meeting, where his newly formed committee of department chairmen would read what Kerr hoped were acceptable terms to end the conflict. While offering amnesty for violations of the old rules during the prior two months, they did not enlarge what the Regents had agreed to two weeks earlier.

These proposals were challenged by grad students at numerous departmental meetings held Monday morning. By the time the University meeting was held at noon, roughly one third of the departmental chairman no longer supported the proposals. After Professor Robert Scalapino of the Political Science Department read them to the 15,000 people assembled, Mario Savio walked to the podium intending to speak. Several campus police officers emerged from behind a curtain and dragged him in back of it before he could do so. The audience erupted in dismay. Some rushed to the stage, where they were tackled by the police. When the dust settled Savio was permitted to speak, but he just invited everyone to a rally at the Administration building. There, most of the speakers were faculty, along with a few public officials who agreed with the students that political activity should be allowed on campus.

The next day the largest Academic Senate meeting in anyone's memory voted overwhelmingly for no restrictions on the content of speech or advocacy. When the faculty left the hall, students cried, cheered, and applauded.


Symbolically, the FSM had won, but the struggle was not over; only the Regents could set policy. When they met on December 18, they voted to support the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, but insisted on law and order. The faculty felt the spirit of their resolution had been met, but the FSM did not. When the new campus administration wrote detailed regulations, content of advocacy was ignored in favor of stringent time, place and manner rules. Scuffling over the rules and how they were applied continued for some time.

In the Spring, Art Goldberg and eight others (but only three students) were arrested for displaying and saying the word "fuck" at the Bancroft plaza. The incident was precipitated by a young man just arrived from New York who was arrested for holding up a piece of paper with that word on it while on campus. There were three rather small support rallies, but apart from these few arrests, little action from either students or faculty. However, some Regents were outraged and told President Kerr to expel the students. Instead, he and the new acting Chancellor offered their resignations. These were withdrawn at an acrimonious Regents' meeting three days later, but the press had a field day. The student newspaper editorialized that "there is absolutely no need for a Filthy Speech Movement." That phrase was copied all over the country. The FSM, which had voted to stay out of this conflict, was permanently stuck with the label.

The nine were convicted in municipal court and sentenced without incident. The FSM only objected when the campus administration appointed a disciplinary committee, which the FSM charged was double jeopardy. Lacking support from students or faculty, only verbal protests were made when that committee recommended that Art Goldberg be expelled and three other students (two of whom had also been arrested) be suspended. However, the "fuck" incident convinced the Regents, the Legislature, and the public at large that the Berkeley students were irresponsible and needed more discipline, not more freedom.

The "800" were tried in the Spring before a judge and convicted on two of three counts. Most got probation and fines; FSM leaders were sentenced to 30 to 120 days. After two years the final appeal was denied and the "800" paid their fines and served their time. The FSM dissolved. Its place was taken by new campus groups, especially the Vietnam Day Committee, which organized one of the first campus teach-ins in May of 1965. Protest against the war largely replaced civil rights demonstrations, though some new issues also emerged.

The FSM was the beginning of what came to be called the "six-year war" on the Berkeley campus. While student groups could now meet, set up tables, distribute literature, raise money, and pretty much say what they pleased at rallies and demonstrations on campus, skirmishes continued over time, place and manner rules, as well as what non-students, including drop-outs and alumni, could do on the campus proper.

Three decades later, a multimillion dollar grant from an alumnus paid for a student cafeteria which memorialized the FSM and for putting the FSM archives on line. The steps of the administration building were officially named the "Mario Savio" steps, and an adjacent campus was called the Clark Kerr campus of the University of California.

Published in the Encyclopedia of American Social Movements (4 vols) edited by Immanuel Ness, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004, pp. 1178-1182.

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