The Free Speech Movement, or FSM, was begun in 1964 at Berkeley by college students enraged by the severe physical violence called down upon them by the college administration when they organized nonviolent protests around political issues like the Vietnam War and civil rights.

The turning point that sparked this movement was September 14, 1964, when the Dean decided to "strictly enforce" all campus regulations prohibiting political advocacy of any kind. All the student groups on campus immediately banded together and picketed meetings at which the Dean and Chancellors clarified these resolutions; then groups including SNCC, the Young Socialist Alliance, and the Du Bois Club staged a test violation of these rules. They were summoned to the Dean's office; 400 students showed up demanding to join in, at which point the Dean cancelled. 700 students subsequently staged a sit-in in Sproul Hall. Eight are suspended, and student Jack Williams is arrested at a subsequent rally protesting the suspensions. Students immediately surrounded the police car, making speeches and preventing police action for 27 solid hours.

During and after this extended rally, 250 more students staged a sit-in at the Dean's office asking to discuss the suspensions. In the middle of that sit-in, a few hours after the rally is ended, 500 new police officers arrived on campus, which only increases the number of demonstrators to 3,000.

UC President Kerr finally signed a pact with eight students representing those suspended. The students galvanized by this 32-hour battle formed a formal alliance, calling it the Free Speech Movement.

President Kerr immediately denounced their leadership as a "Mao-Castroite influence," and the battle to change the campus rules around political speech continued on.

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At UC Berkeley, the campus authorities had banned students from soliciting names for petitions, handing out pamphlets or recruiting on a specific stretch of road. It had been a popular area previously, due to the presence of the Oakland Tribune office, whose publisher was conservative Senator William Knowland. The area was closed to the students thanks to pressure from conservative University regents. But Students proceeded to set up tables in defiance of the ban, and so 50 of them were ordered to appear before a school disciplinary hearing. Instead, Student demonstrator Mario Savio led a mob of 500 students to the hearing. More clashing between protesters and administration ensued, and eventually a new student organization was born: the FSM, led by Savio.

The members handed out leaflets to encourage student participation. On one of them, “Free Speech Now,” they insisted that “our University has an obligation to its students and to its supposed existence as a centre for free thought and speech. . .” Outlined in their leaflet were the demands for “Freedom to distribute printed material advocating student participation in political and social action,” and “freedom for student speakers to speak at any time at reasonable open areas which do not interfere with traffic and classes.”

The FSM soon enlisted the help of the school’s underpaid, overworked graduate students, who were sympathetic to the cause. Having them for support was integral, as they had some sway with the administration. As the movement escalated, and Savio was charged with hindering the campus police unlawfully, the graduate students went on strike.

On December 2nd, over one thousand demonstrators joined a sit-in that occupied four floors of Sproul Hall, an administrative building. At 2 in the morning police arrived, and began the arduous task of carrying limp passively resisting students out of the building.

The FSM was attempting to answer The Port Huron statement’s question of “if we wanted to change society, how would we do it?” and succeeding. For on December 8th, an academic senate meeting with the highest turnout ever, saw victory for the Movement. An amendment that would have seen University intervention in any matter of speech or advocacy that might be interpreted as leading to hostility was overturned. Then, in January, the University Chancellor was fired and replaced by Martin Meyerson, a supporter of the Free Speech Movement. Students were then allowed to set up on the previously banned strip, and other areas selling pins and bumper stickers, distributing literature, recruiting members and so on.

But such liberal free thinking attitudes were soon overshadowed by rising conservative tendencies in the late ‘60’s and early 70’s. Berkeley was seen by many members of the community as a haven of immorality and indecency. It was not seen as a place where problems were being solved, but was where they began. Popular opinion had become conservative, and politics along with it. During Ronald Reagan’s 1966 campaign for Governor of California, he blamed a moral decline on “the so-called free-speech advocates, who in truth have no appreciation for freedom.” The 1970’s and 80’s would see society crack down on “immoral” and “indecent” Americans such as J.D. Salinger, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Censorship was fast becoming a new American past-time.


Roberts, Randy and James S. Olson Ed ., American Experiences Vol. II,. Longman, Montreal 2002.
Hayden, Tom, “Students for a Democratic Society Port Huron Statement,” June 15th 1962.,
Students for a Democratic Society, “Free Speech Now” 1964.,
Burner, David, Making Peace with the 60’s, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1996.

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