Nov 9, 2020

The Fight Over the First Amendment

The University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley) is currently known for having politically active and liberal students, and the city of Berkeley is one of the most liberal cities in the country. This, however, is not a new phenomenon, UC Berkeley has a history of being liberal and its students for being involved in politics. The Free Speech Movement (FSM) was a movement that took place at UC Berkeley at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

The FSM, a lesser-known movement that took place during the Civil Rights Movement, began in the fall of 1964, just as UC Berkeley was starting its fall semester.

Many UC Berkeley students were politically active during the Civil Rights Movement, with many of them participating in very public protests and marches in the struggle for civil rights, social justice, and against the Vietnam War. Many UC Berkeley students were often arrested at these demonstrations, so the media portrayed UC Berkeley as an institution that attracted liberals and radicals.

On September 1, 1964 dozens of tables were set up in Sproul Plaza offering political information on different issues and how students could get involved with them. The UC Berkeley administration believed that the political information tables in Sproul Plaza were somewhat responsible for these demonstrations as if they were a bad thing.

Katherine Towle, the Dean of Students, sent a letter to students on September 14, 1964, stating that students’ political information tables were no longer allowed on campus, students could no longer recruit people to join demonstrations or collect money on campus, and students were not allowed to have positions on work for political issues off-campus.

These restrictions, you would think, violated students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. UC Berkeley students, frustrated and refusing to let this happen, argued with the administration in an exchange of demands and responses for the next two weeks.

On September 30th, five students and three demonstrators faced disciplinary action for setting up tables with political information and for demonstrating. More than 500 students showed up at Sproul Hall in what would be the first of many sit-ins and stayed until 2:00 am in the morning when they were forced to leave. Despite this, the eight students were suspended.

The next day, on October 1st, another student, Jack Weinberg, set up a table with political information on the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE). Weinberg was arrested by police for refusing to tell them who he was and refusing to leave. It was this arrest that sparked arguably the most memorable event of the FSM. When he was arrested and put into the back of the police car, hundreds of UC Berkeley students came to Sproul Hall, where the police car was, and surrounded the car, making it impossible for the officers to drive away.

For the next 36 hours, hundreds became thousands, and eventually, thousands of UC Berkeley students surrounded the car, refusing to let it move, all while Weinberg sat in the back. Two hours in, Mario Savio, one of the most well-known figures of this movement, climbed on top of the police car and gave a speech to the growing crowd.

Savio was not climbing on the police car to damage it or cause a riot, he removed his shoes and went about standing on it respectfully. In his speech, Savio calls for the release of Weinberg and a lift to the administration’s bans on political participation both on and off-campus.

By the evening of the following day, more than 7,000 students had joined the demonstration at Sproul Hall. While the demonstrators stood there, surrounded by police and refusing to leave, the administration held a meeting to figure out their next steps. Included in this meeting were law enforcement representatives, representatives of the governor’s office, and the UC President and Chancellor, Clark Kerr, and Edward Strong, respectively.

While the demands of the students had not been met, at 7:30 pm on October 2nd, 1964, Savio read an accepted agreement from Clark Kerr to the students. In the agreement, the charges against Weinberg would be dropped and students and administrators will form a committee to continue the discussion of the ban on political activities. In the agreement, the students are to cease their illegal protesting activities. After Savio read the agreement, the thousands of students began to scatter.

The committee was formed quickly, but on November 7th, the administration refused to budge on the ban on political activities, and the negotiations seem to be going nowhere. In response, frustrated students returned to Sproul Plaza on November 9th to set up political tables.

On November 20th, the Regents (the governing board of the University of California meets and modify their policy regarding political activity, but still refuse to budge on disciplining students involved with what they deemed “illegal advocacy”. That same day, more than 3,000 students joined together at Sproul Hall and held a rally to demand that the Regents allow students to practice their full Constitutional rights on campus.

On December 1st, students delivered an ultimatum to the administration, demanding that the charges against Savio and another student who faced disciplinary action for the events on October 1st and 2nd be dropped. On December 2nd, you guessed it, there is yet another mass gathering of students at Sproul Hall.

On the steps of Sproul Hall, many speakers and performers, most notably Joan Baez who sang “We Shall Overcome”, addressed the students. Later in the afternoon, almost 1,000 students went inside Sproul Hall and held a sit-in.

Five hours into the sit-in, police intervene and prevent information and food from getting to the students through a second-floor window. Starting at 3:00 am on December 3rd and continuing until 3:00 am on December 4th, the police arrest more than 800 demonstrators.

After the administration failed to meet the demands of the students in their ultimatum, thousands of students participated in a strike led by UC Berkeley’s teaching assistants. On December 7th, 1964, around 16,000 students, faculty, and staff gathered at the Greek Theatre anxiously awaiting the administration’s response to their demands.

President Kerr announced that students who faced disciplinary action for their participation in the FSM would be granted amnesty, but still refused to budge on UC Berkeley’s policy giving the university the right to take disciplinary action against students who participated in “illegal advocacy”.

Savio, in response to Kerr’s address, took to the stage of the Greek Theatre in an attempt to speak to the crowd, but he was forced off the stage by police who later allowed him to speak. Savio announced another rally at Sproul Plaza to continued to fight for free speech on campus.

On December 8th, the Academic Senate gave into the FSM’s most fundamental demand that students be allowed to participate in political activities on campus. The University agreed to stop regulating the content of the students’ speech and advocacy.

On December 18th, 1964, in most arguably the FSM’s biggest achievement, the Regents stated that students’ 1st and 14th Amendment rights regarding speech and advocacy would be protected on-campus.

Many colleges and universities across the country follow UC Berkeley’s example and reduced regulations allowing students to participate in political activities.

On November 6th, 1996 Mario Savio tragically passed away, and the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture was established in his honor. This lecture is given every fall at UC Berkeley to promote the values Mario Savio fought for the freedom of speech and expression, social justice, and human rights. In 1997, the steps of Sproul Hall have renamed the Mario Savio Steps in his honor, and the Mario Savio Young Activist Award was created and is now presented at the lecture series.

The Free Speech Movement did more than giving students the right to practice their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression on-campus, it set the foundation for many movements to come. The FSM told young people that they can create meaningful change if they just keep fighting for it and refuse to give up.

The students achieved their goal of being allowed to exercise free speech and their right to organize on campus, and they did this by fighting the University Board of Regents and the power the Regents held. The students’ victory created momentum for the movements that came after it.


Sydney Henderson

I am a senior at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California, and I swim and play water polo. I am interested in gender studies and economics, which I plan to major in in college. I also love stand-up comedy!

If you found this article, please share it:

Our Latest Articles

Tidings Media

Where we discuss economics, history, and everything in between.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Receive exclusive resources to become a better writer, economist, and historian!

© 2021 Tidings Media