Former editors remember a history marked by controversy

Toni Martin/Courtesy
Toni Martin (center), the first Editor-in-Chief of the independent Daily Californian, sits with Jim Branson (left) and Trish Hall (right) in a staff meeting.

The Daily Californian proclaimed its independence from the campus 40 years ago today, months after a controversial editorial angered UC Berkeley officials into firing the editors responsible for its publication.

The front-page editorial, published May 11, 1971, encouraged readers to “Take Back (People’s) Park” and tear down the fence that the UC Board of Regents had put up around it. The piece divided the Daily Cal’s staff and readers while sparking criticism from then-chancellor Roger Heyns, the UC Board of Regents and then-governor Ronald Reagan.

“This (editorial) was following years of bickering and fighting with administration about what we wrote and how we wrote it,” said then-editor in chief John Emshwiller. “It was the last straw towards independence.”

Emshwiller said the Daily Cal wanted to commemorate the riot that ensued after the fence’s installation in May 1969.

“The question arose of what we should do,” Emshwiller said. “We thought about it with half a mind and our managing editor, James Blodgett, sat down and knocked off this editorial.”

The Senior Editorial Board voted to run the editorial 3-2, with Emshwiller as one of the dissenters.

According to Emshwiller, the board was not expecting the editorial to be as controversial as it would become in the days and weeks following May 11.

“We had gotten used to the notion that people didn’t read the Daily Cal,” Emshwiller said. “But they read this one, and then the day comes and turns into a riot.”

In the days preceding the “party at People’s Park,” as the editorial characterized it, the Daily Cal published other articles, editorials and letters to the editor about the community’s reaction to the original editorial. A minority editorial, signed by Emshwiller and then-city editor Trish Hall, apologized to readers about the controversy the original editorial had caused.

Yet, after the May 15 riot resulted in 43 arrests, the Daily Californian Publisher’s Board voted to fire Blodgett, lower staff representative Fran Hawthorne and editorial page editor David Dozier — the three editors who voted in favor of the editorial. Emshwiller and Hall resigned in protest of the firings.

Richard Hafner, the chancellor’s representative on the Daily Californian Publisher’s Board, called the Senior Editorial Board’s decision to run the editorial “insensitive.”

On May 19, 1971, the Daily Californian staff published an editorial in which they refused to accept the firings and moved forth to elect a new editor in chief, Toni Martin, and appoint a new Senior Editorial Board.

After the publisher’s board suspended all future publications, independence  was “the only way to keep the paper running,” said Craig Oren, the first editorial page editor of the independent Daily Cal. “The campus was under pressure from the Board of Regents to wane the influence of student publications, so both sides needed a compromise.”

In an agreement with the campus, the Daily Cal’s new editorial board agreed to move the paper off-campus and become editorially and financially independent.

Martin said that moving off campus gave a different perspective to the paper’s reporting of UC Berkeley.

“When we were in Eshleman, the student president would be constantly be howling at us for what we wrote and what we didn’t,” Martin said. “That didn’t happen after we moved off.”

Yet Martin said that the biggest change to editorial content came not in the words that were published but in the way the paper approached reporting.

“Now we took responsibility for what we saw and what we wrote,” Martin said. “It made us more careful about the truth.”

Amruta Trivedi covers academics and administration.