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Movements that Inspire Us: Berkeley Free Speech

While we focus our efforts on the despicable war in Vietnam, we pause to acknowledge movements that have inspired us, like the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. While the fight continues in California, many of the movements most exciting movements occurred

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In the fall of 1964 student activists at UC Berkeley, some of whom had traveled with the Freedom Riders and worked to register African American voters in Mississippi in the Freedom Summer project, had set up information tables on campus and were soliciting donations for civil rights causes.

Dean Katherine Towle's statement of September 14 asserted that "Provisions of the policy of The Regents concerning `Use of University Facilities' will be strictly enforced in all areas designated as property of The Regents... including the 26-foot strip of brick walkway at the campus entrance on Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue..." The policy forbid the collection of funds or active campaigning for political organizations other than the Democratic or Republican Parties. Students were outraged at this violation of their free speech rights Furthermore, this area had traditionally been understood to be City, rather than University, property.

In response to numerous protests and meetings with the leadership of SNCC and SLATE, University President Clark Kerr issued a statement that is excerpted here:

"The Dean of Students has met many requests of the students. The line the University draws will be an acceptable one...I don't think you have to have action to have intellectual opportunity. Their actions--collecting money and picketing--aren't high intellectual activity... These actions are not necessary for the intellectual development of the students. If that were so, why teach history? We can't live in ancient Greece...

"The University is an educational institution that has been given to the Regents as a trust to administer for educational reasons, and not to be used for direct political action. It wouldn't be proper. It is not right to use the University as a basis from which people organize and undertake direct action in the surrounding community."

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On September 30 Mario Savio, Arthur Goldberg and Sandor Fuchs lead more than 500 students in protest outside the Presidents Office in Sproul Hall, demanding that they be able to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech. It was on this day that Savio would deliver his famous speech on the Multiversity:

We have an autocracy which runs this university. It's managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn't he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received -- from a well-meaning liberal -- was the following: He said, "Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?" That's the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I'll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we're the raw material! But we're a bunch of raw material[s] that don't mean to have any process upon us, don't mean to be made into any product, don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We're human beings! There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all! Now, no more talking. We're going to march in singing "We Shall Overcome."

To view Savio's impassioned speech, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FPG1WfcJRo

Savio encouraged all students to remain through the night, and the crowd would not disperse until 2:40am when riot police were called. The next day, a former student named Jack Weinberg set up a table in support of campus CORE. When he was asked to leave, he refused to move or provide authorities with his name. Instead of carrying Weinberg into police headquarters in Sproul Hall, University police moved a police car into the area where students were gathering for the noon rally. About 100 students lay down in front of the car, with another 80 laying down behind it, crying "Release him, Release him!" Savio removed his shoes and stood on top of the car. This marked the beginning of a 32 hour protest, with the police car at the center. Weinburg was fed sandwiches and milk through the window.

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Over 500 students would eventually occupy the Sproul building, before being met by anti-protests from numerous fraternities and other student groups. The conflict between FSM members and other students would nearly descend into a riot. Eventually, campus administrators would engage in further negotiations with the students, as they realized that continuing conflict could rip the campus apart.

The student leaders agreed to a committee that would explore student protest. Mario Savio pleaded with the gathered crowd: "Let us agree by acclamation to accept this document. I ask you to rise quietly and with dignity, and go home."

Though the FSM would not conclude for several months, it would result in hundreds of individuals protests, building occupations, and the eventual firing of President Kerr in 1967. On January 3, 1965, the University designated the Sproul Hall steps an open discussion area during certain hours of the day and permitting tables.

We applaud the successful efforts of the FSM, and draw inspiration from their actions!