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Berkeley's Free Speech Movement

by Stephen Lendman Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 at 11:30 PM


Berkeley's Free Speech Movement

by Stephen Lendman

Free expression in all forms are fundamental in democratic societies.

All other freedoms are risked without free speech, a free press, freedom of thought, culture, intellectual inquiry, and right to challenge government authority peacefully.

In the 1960s, anti-war and civil rights activism inspired Berkeley's Free Speech Movement (FSM). It began in 1964. UC Berkeley students protested banned on-campus political activity.

They demanded free expression and academic freedom rights. Unprecedented student activism followed.

FSM was a student initiative. Faculty, administration and local government officials joined. UC students earlier protested House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC: 1947 - 1975) anti-communist witch hunts.

Berkeley's 1964 fall term included several dozen students returning from Mississippi's "Freedom Summer." Racially motivated discrimination and violence horrified them.

They bonded with other student activists. Berkeley's activist SLATE (1958 - 1966) was precursor to FSM. Civil rights and International Workers of the World (IWW) leaders supported it. So did Joan Baez and Bettina Aptheker. She later became UC Santa Cruz Feminist Studies Professor.

Activism is traditional at Berkeley. It began long before FSM. Iconoclasts and free-thinkers challenged hidebound societal notions and practices.

Muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens studied at Berkeley. So did novelist Frank Norris and Spanish Civil War Abraham Lincoln Brigade commander Robert Merriman.

In the early 1920s, faculty activists revolted. An Academic Senate followed. Shared governance at that time was unprecedented. The tradition lives.

Student groups since the 1930s protested against emerging fascism, banned leftist speakers, capital punishment, and a statewide UC loyalty oath.

In 1949, university regents approved it. It required faculty, staff and student employees to declare in writing no connection to the Communist Party.

Opposition arose. Regents relented. In 1952, California's Supreme Court sided with fired university employees for refusing to sign.

These and similar events were precursor to FSM. Activism is traditional at Berkeley. It's an idea whose time came long ago. More than ever it's needed across America to challenge fast eroding rights.

Ironically, 1960s Berkeley protests helped elect Ronald Reagan. In 1966, he became governor. He promised to "clean up" student unrest. In spring 1969, he sent National Guard troops and state police to People's Park.

On "bloody Thursday" May 15, a violent confrontation ensued. Many dozens were injured, some seriously. Reagan declared a state of emergency. Public anger arose.

Months later, Reagan defended his action. "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with," he said. "No more appeasement."

On May 4, 1970, the disease spread east. Ohio National Guard troops murdered four Kent State protesters. Nine others were seriously wounded.

Berkeley activism continues. Jewish/Palestinian issues are highlighted. On December 10, ACLU's Northern California affiliate wrote the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

It concerns a July 9, 2012 complaint filed by attorneys Joel H. Siegel and Neal M. Sher for UC grads Jessica Felber and Brian Maissy. In March 2011 they sued the university. They alleged a hostile Jewish student environment.

They claimed Palestine solidarity activism creates "a disturbing echo of incitement, intimidation, harassment and violence carried out under the Nazi regime and those of its allies in Europe against Jewish students and scholars….during the turbulent years leading up to and (during) the Holocaust."

Saying so exceeded reason and then some. It was way over the top. Northern California's US District Court agreed. In December, it dismissed the case. It ruled that:

"The administration has engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the opposing parties in an attempt to ensure that the rights of all persons are respected, and to minimize the potential for violence and unsafe conditions."

Felber and Maissy claims about Palestinian campus activism marginalizing Jewish rights don't wash. The ACLU got involved. It's concerned about First Amendment rights.

Its letter said the Northern California branch was involved "in a number of instances in which similar claims have arisen as a result of the activities of pro-Palestinian and/or pro-Israeli student groups on campus."

"It acknowledges that these can be hard cases, but warns that the present Complaint 'raises constitutional red flags.' " (It) consistently ignores 'paramount constitutional message(s).' "

The US Supreme Court ruled "the First Amendment (to mean) that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content."

Plaintiff claims were dismissed. The District Court said publicly expressed "political speech and expressive conduct" are constitutionally protected.

Dissatisfied, attorneys filed an OCR Complaint. Jewish student discriminatory harassment is reflected in activities like annual "Apartheid Week," they claimed.

Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Association organize mock checkpoints. They're erected to simulate occupation harshness.

The ACLU letter added:

"The allegations of this Title VI complaint reflect either a profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment, or an attempt to persuade the government to use its power to restrict speech based on its content and political viewpoint."

Title VI is codified in the 1964 Civil rights act. It assures nondiscrimination in federally assisted programs. Section 601 states:

"No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

In October, the Department of Education began investigating plaintiffs' complaint. It stressed that doing so "in no way implies that (it) made a determination with regard to its merits."

ACLU's main concern is for First Amendment rights. Compromising them would have a chilling effect on campus activism nationwide. Free expression would be threatened.

ACLU Northern California Legal Director Alan L. Schlosser wrote the letter. He said campus activism "convey(s) a political viewpoint about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza - that it is discriminatory against Palestinians, and that it is unjust, coercive, (and) oppressive."

Whatever views Felber and Maissy hold, First Amendment rights are inviolable.

"Speech that criticizes the State of Israel and its policies and actions, or even questions its right to exist as a Jewish State in the region, cannot constitute the basis for government restriction or regulation."

"Speech on public issues occupies the highest rung on the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection."

"The First Amendment protects speech, no matter now offensive or disturbing it is to some people."

"In fact, First Amendment protections are most important when speakers take controversial or unpopular positions that might arouse strong feelings, passions, and hostility."

"There are no sacred cows when it comes to the First Amendment's protection for political messages or viewpoints."

Activist speech in all forms is protected. Pro-Israeli activism may be as freely expressed as others do for Palestine. Constitutional law prohibits inhibiting either. Censorship in any form is abhorrent and illegal. Harsh criticism often is most important.

Voltaire defended it. "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," he said.

In Texas v. Johnson (a 1989 flag burning case), Justice William Brennan wrote the majority opinion, saying:

"(I)f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable."

Former US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said:

"Above all else, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression (regardless of its) ideas.…subject matter (or) content….Our people are guaranteed the right to express any thought, free from government censorship."

Freedom activists nationwide express similar sentiments. Free expression in all forms exceeds all other rights in importance.

The ACLU urged prompt Department of Education action. It said government scrutiny of student activism could compromise it.

It remains to be seen what follows. Police state repression targets fundamental freedoms. First Amendment rights may be compromised.

America stands a hair's breath from full-blown tyranny. On arrival it'll be wrapped in an American flag.

Doing so won't mitigate its harshness. In today's climate of permanent war, state-sponsored fear, and erosion of fundamental rights, expect recrimination against non-believers to follow.

Freedom in America hangs by a thread. Compromised First Amendment rights assures losing all others.

It may be nearer than most expect. The possibility should arouse mass activism to defend what's too important to lose.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at

His new book is titled "Banker Occupation: Waging Financial War on Humanity."

Visit his blog site at and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.

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