Disinviting a speaker on Free Speech Movement’s 50th anniversary

Alvaro Azcarraga/Staff

Because the UC Berkeley student petition to withdraw the invitation for Bill Maher to serve as the commencement speaker at UC Berkeley next month — and the campus administration’s refusal to approve this disinvitation — comes on the Free Speech Movement’s 50th anniversary, it is worth reflecting on the FSM’s own history regarding speakers with whom it disagreed.

The FSM proved consistently open to hearing its critics and eager to debate them. In fact, one of the initial speeches Mario Savio gave Sept. 30, 1964, which marked him as the Berkeley student movement’s leading orator, took the form of a rebuttal to a dean who had just finished defending the university’s dismal free speech record. In his speeches, Savio often criticized, questioned, even mocked the movement’s critics, but he never suggested disinviting them from campus.

At some key FSM rallies, including the first massive one during the police car blockade of Oct. 1 and 2, 1964, when Savio and others used the top of a car as a podium, both student and faculty critics of the movement were among the speakers. And late at night, when rowdy hecklers sought to disrupt the blockade — and even began hurling objects at him and the other free speech protesters — Savio responded by seeking dialogue. He tried to explain the idea of civil disobedience to these violent critics by giving them a history lesson on Thoreau and his tax refusal. Just before the FSM’s culminating sit-in, the movement’s most emotionally charged rally at Sproul Hall on Dec. 2, 1964 — when Savio made his stirring speech calling for students to “put their bodies upon the gears” of the university’s oppressive administrative machinery — included a speech by Cal’s student body president opposing the sit-in.

Back in 1964, it was not UC Berkeley students but the UC administration that engaged in barring speakers. The most famous speaker barred from the podium on campus in 1964 was Savio himself. In convening the historic Greek Theatre meeting Dec. 7, 1964, UC President Clark Kerr and his faculty allies sought to impose a compromise settlement and so end the campus free speech crisis. But Kerr refused all requests for a student speaker at the meeting, and so as the meeting was about to end, Savio walked on to the stage and up to the podium.  Before Savio could utter a word, he was seized by two police officers, who dragged him away by his tie — yes, he was wearing one — in front of an audience of some 15,000 outraged students and faculty.

Having stood up for free speech and been outraged by this very physical “disinviting” of Savio from the podium, it is hard to imagine the FSM approving of the recent student petition to disinvite Maher. As veterans of the Bay Area civil rights movement and Freedom Summer deeply concerned about prejudice, however, Savio and other FSM-ers would likely urge Maher to engage in a dialogue with his critics on campus who charge that his criticism of Islamic intolerance has been so sweeping that it may itself breed Islamophobia. Criticism and debate — yes. Disinviting — no.

In 1964, the UC Berkeley campus was roiled in a dispute over a fundamental free speech right: the right to politically advocate within the college gates. That dispute did not involve a comedian or a commencement speaker, so some may object to the historical analogies I have made here. Fair enough. But consider this. The semester after the FSM, Savio did in fact speak up on behalf of the free speech rights of controversial comedian Lenny Bruce. In March 1965, Savio sought unsuccessfully to convince the UC administration to allow Lenny Bruce to speak on campus after Bruce’s arrest for using obscene language. So it would likely surprise Savio that the UC Berkeley administration today, unlike its predecessors that had sparked the FSM by repressing free speech in 1964, is taking a free speech stance by refusing to disinvite Maher while students have advocated disinviting the controversial comedian. In this sense one can say that on its 50th anniversary the FSM — or at least its free speech idealism — is occupying UC’s administration building without a sit-in.

Robert Cohen is a visiting professor of history at UC Berkeley whose most recent book is “The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings That Changed America.”

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