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Reflecting on the legacy of the Free Speech Movement

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OCTOBER 10, 2014

Some have questioned the administrative embrace of the celebration and legacy of the Free Speech Movement on its 50th anniversary. As a newcomer to this campus, I have been pleased to recognize the role that students and faculty here played in establishing that the norms of free speech on campus were not to be constrained by the administration of the University of California, but rather determined by the norms of free speech as stipulated and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. What’s more, it has been an honor to remember that the formal demands of the students were not just about an abstract if important principle, but intimately connected to the broader civil rights movement’s demand for substantive changes to the character and politics of the country. There are, however, other important lessons of this historical legacy.

The Free Speech Movement pit students against administrators at Berkeley, over both tactics — civil disobedience — and goals — freedom for political speech. While there is much to be learned from administrative failures at the time, the most interesting historical questions remain around the role of Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of UC Berkeley, and the innovative and visionary president of the UC system from 1958 to 1967. Kerr was a liberal and enlightened thinker, deeply committed to accessible and high-quality education while also committed to maintaining UC Berkeley’s status as one of the most distinguished universities in the world. He was also a pragmatist who thought he could defuse conflict between students and the regents by transferring a small strip of land in what is now Sproul Plaza from the university to the city.

Kerr famously failed, however, both to avoid conflict through that transfer of land — it didn’t happen — and to comprehend some core issues that were at stake. In the first instance, he was hobbled by an evolving — if necessary — devolution of control from the office of the President to the campuses (while clearly reluctant to relinquish the authority he promised to his own campus) and found himself under attack by radicalizing students on the one side and the regents and reactionary politicians on the other. But there was a larger failure connected to his inability to grasp the lasting lessons of the loyalty oath controversy. The ideal of political neutrality he espoused was belied by the extent to which the regents had attempted to seal the campus off from unwanted forms of political advocacy or involvement. Neutrality could only be achieved through a reliance on robust and free debate, not through the depoliticization of public spaces on campus. By 1964, when the civil rights movement was demanding moral as well as political attention on U.S. college campuses, liberalism had to accommodate itself to a fundamentally different kind of political self-understanding.

Chancellor Strong was less concerned with liberalism and its dilemmas and saw the movement largely as a problem of campus discipline. He gave the movement opportunities for mobilization it adroitly exploited, especially at times of dispiriting internal dissension. Mario Savio was charismatic and eloquent, and he commanded explosive student participation and growing faculty support.  When the faculty famously voted Dec. 8 to remove all restrictions on the free exercise of political speech other than “time, place, and manner,” Savio appreciated the enormity of his political accomplishment.

Savio also understood the responsibility that came along with this victory. As he said Dec. 9, “We’re asking that there be no, no restrictions on the content of speech save those provided by the courts. And that’s an enormous amount of freedom. … We’ve finally gotten into a position where we have to consider being responsible, because now we have the freedom within which to be responsible. And I’d like to say at this time I’m confident that the students and faculty at the University of California will exercise their freedom with the same responsibility they’ve shown in winning their freedom.”  This again was Savio as a moral political actor, expressing in these powerful words his own embrace not just of the right to free speech, but also the full weight of obligation that accompanies this right.

Even as Kerr worked behind the scenes to secure the political compromise that confirmed the vote of the faculty and removed Chancellor Strong, he inadvertently gave the budding politician Ronald Reagan a platform for his own political career and in turn became a tragic casualty of the movement’s aftermath. His firing in 1967 was a major setback for the university and a powerful illustration of the wrong kind of politicization of university life.  Although Reagan was actually acting on his election promise to control student radicalism at UC Berkeley, he noted that he fired Kerr because he didn’t see why the state should be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity,” an unfortunate sentiment about university life even without the relevant political agendas. Savio himself “retired” from the movement when he questioned his own indispensable role, exemplifying both his own powerful moral sensibility and his political modesty.

This was not a moment that requires personal nostalgia or resists critical historical scrutiny for contemporary significance and meaning. It was a time when students exercised an important moral imperative and yet in the end joined with faculty and eventually with the administration to find collective ways to recommit to the extraordinary value, and values, of the university. Why would we not wish to embrace this history and continue to learn from it?

Contact Nicholas Dirks at 


OCTOBER 10, 2014