Looking Back at the Free Speech Movement  [1974]

by Michael Rossman

         In the past few days, a deluge of reporters have been after me for remarks on the tenth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. They are so happy to find a certified veteran of that legendary, ill-understood, and almost forgotten event, one who will still talk to them, however sourly. What did it feel like? Did it succeed? Was it worth it? Out of decency rather than hope, I try to be patient with each one, resisting the urge to tease them about the goosestep reflexes of media coverage, or how wretchedly misleading their reports were the first time around and surely will be again. But what can I say, in two sentences in the local paper, or ten seconds on the Cronkite show?

         So I have written these dry reflections on the FSM, its place in history, and its legacy today, in case anyone cares. Does anyone? All the media came at me not in response to consumer interest, but because the university's Publicity Office had sent them a press release remembering the anniversary and boasting how much political freedom and good education the campus enjoys now (presumably in contrast to the days when students were raising such a ruckus). Thus is the news, our vision of the world, generated and managed. Well, despite my weary tone, I still do believe in free speech, and a free press too. However inadequate our media are, I'm grateful they came knocking at my door, before the university fell over from patting itself on the back, to bring away at least the brief impression of one man saying, "oh no, it isn't so."

The FSM and Student Rights

         As seen through the national media, the FSM began in October 1964, when three thousand students held hostage a police car that had arrested a civil rights worker on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, and climaxed two months later when 800 students were arrested in the first campus sit-in, 10,000 more went on strike and shut the campus down, and the faculty voted to ratify the principal student demands. During the next five years similar disturbances occurred on a thousand campuses, and the FSM came to be seen naively as the start of the student movement.

         Yet by 1964, the New Left of radical social action which began after McCarthy's witchhunts ceased had been developing for seven years. Indeed, its momentum was directly responsible for the FSM. During the previous spring, in the Bay Area, thousands of students from local campuses had sallied forth to massive sit-ins and arrests, in an effort to force hotels, restaurants and auto dealers to hire minorities fairly. Pressure came on college administrations to remedy the situation. At Berkeley, new rules appeared to prohibit the students' forum and means of organizing. The students resisted, with all the passion they brought to the cause of Civil Rights, and the FSM began.

         At stake were not only the local Civil Rights movement and the university's budget, but fundamental political issues. Are students citizens? Do they enjoy basic political rights while on a public campus, as well as in their off hours – not only the right to vote, but to organize political action? The narrow issue was free speech. Did we have the right to advocate political causes, hold meetings for them, recruit members, collect funds, organize actions? The Regents said no, the Constitution said yes, we went to jail, the faculty agreed with us for a moment, and the Regents passed a resolution saying they didn't contemplate abridging our rights.

          So did we win? The years since have been a mixed bag. The very next spring a poet was arrested in our Free Speech plaza, for bearing a sign reading FUCK. In the ensuing chaos, the university's president hreatened to resign, to draw support for his approach to management. As a poet, I found the matter political, and think the president was right on when he coined the sly title Filthy Speech Movement to connect it to the FSM. But for a more orthodox example, consider the case of Eldrich Cleaver, invited in 1969 to be a lecturer in a political course which students had organized legitimately by university channels. There was a terrible flap from the administration. When the rhetoric cleared, Cleaver was cancelled; the Board of Educational Development, which had been the school's only answer to the deep problems of institutional change revealed by the FSM, and had approved the course, was dismantled; and the fledgling experiment in student-initiated courses was cut back and placed under stricter control. The subtler ways of hampering other forms of political expression that have continued to operate, outside the Regents' "contemplation," would take an article to catalogue.

          On the other hand, speech was indeed freed on the campus, and has remained so on the whole. Throughout the rest of the Sixties, the Berkeley campus was home base to the most massive and sustained local anti-war movement in the nation. From the night march of 5,000 toward the Oakland Induction Center in 1965 through the time after Kent State when much of the school went on Moratorium and turned to the cause, this movement prospered; and if two years later we watched with impotent rage and grief as death rained down on city and harbor, that was not a matter which free speech alone could rectify. The freer atmosphere of expression that still flourishes on the campus has nourished support for the farmworkers, for People's Park, for the women's, gay, and handicapped liberation movements, for affirmative action for all minorities, for street music and religion and a great variety of cultural expression, making Berkeley still a major center of exploration of all the bewildering edges of freedom and change.

          But it's a mistake to say that the FSM did the job. The FSM was only one struggle of many over years to extend students' rights of expression, and its victory was only temporary, needing constantly to be renewed. Infringements followed quickly, and the faculty would not back up what it had voted for in a moment of moral truth. Sometimes, as with Cleaver, the students lost completely. At other times, most fiercely in anti-war work, they kept political freedom, and the broader vitality it catalyzes, alive on the campus by showing en masse that they would go to the wall, through violence and jail, to defend it.

         The university runs no more by principle and justice now than it did ten years ago. Insofar as the institution is a tool of the State, it runs on expediency and moves in response to pressure. The administrators admire free speech but are not committed to it; they tend to want order and smooth functioning, rather than the chaos of controversy. Right now, the public relations office says approvingly, the students "aren't interested in politics, they're more private." Perhaps so; though I think despair at seeing a decade's political efforts come seemingly to damn near nothing may have something to do with this. But I think this condition too is only temporary. These days free speech is not a problem, because the present customs of its use are modest and tuned to a different vibration. But you know how crazy our times are. Soon enough passion and energy will flare into unorthodox expression, make waves in the community, trouble the bastions of power; and the university administration again will find it expedient to move in response to pressure. What has been decreed can be undecreed; new interpretations of the Regents' contemplations may appear; and so on. This is what the FSM itself taught, and there is no reason to suppose it otherwise now. Indeed, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

The FSM and Education

         But this political issue was only the surface of the FSM and its legacy. There was also the issue of "educational alienation," or, as I prefer to see it, of academic freedom. By 1964, many of us had come to look on college not just as a place where one went like an empty can to get filled with the information and habits that could win one a classy job, but as a place where we should learn about the injustices and uglinesses of our society, and how to change them. In this sense our political activity wasn't just an extracurricular frill, but a crucial part of our education. We wanted to use the public university in every possible way to further it. We wanted courses that would lead us to understand what happens behind the smokescreens of power, we wanted to use campus facilities to organize experiments in social change, and soon we wanted to receive credit towards degrees for participating in and evaluating these experiments. At stake in this local example, was perhaps the key educational issue of our time. How much right does the student have to determine the content, style, thrust and purpose of his or her learning? Should he or she have full rights of academic freedom, as of political freedom?

         In civil rights work, we were powerfully engaged in a learning quest. When it was thwarted, we turned our intelligence angrily upon the rest of the education we were receiving at the hands of "our" university. From the start, one major theme of the FSM was the need for educational reform. Our vehemence led some observers to write off our revolt as "educational alienation," and suggest "more relevant" courses to assuage it. But there was more to it than this, and during three months of campus crisis we began to articulate a radical critique of higher education from top to bottom -- from the elitist composition of the Regents and the shaping of departments and curricula by government contracts, through the grading system and dormitory rules and student powerlessness in departmental affairs, to the content and process and premises of classes themselve

         In 1964, it was a novelty for such issues to be raised by students, rather than by the managers of academia; our educational discontent drew wide attention as a puzzling anomaly, in the face of the unchallenged and triumphant progress of higher education to universal dominion. But in fact such discontent had been brewing widely for years, and once we had made it public was echoed throughout America. Strictly educational protests began to rock other campuses the following spring, and by 1970 most of the nation's 2,500 colleges had a variety of student-initiated reform efforts underway. As the impulse of criticism and regeneration spread to the high schools and lower grades, and beyond them into a wave of alternative/experimental schools, the entire educational system began to be affected. At every level fundamental issues opened -- what social purposes should education serve, and whose interests? how should it proceed? who shall decide? -- whose resolution now involves many people in slow, complex processes of struggle and change, within the institutions and without.

          If the FSM was the harbinger of what may yet amount to an educational revolution, it is worth asking why it started at Berkeley. As well as surveys can determine, we were top students at the best all-around university in the country. Our defection was surprising, but perfectly appropriate. For if the problems with education in our civilization are not superficial, requiring merely some minor institutional adjustments to correct, but fundamental, as I believe, then in a sense our experience of education at its best was instead education at its worst. The institution's contradictions, its failures to meet personal and social needs, were at their highest refinement in us. We were jolted to awareness of this by the contrasting experience of a different kind of educational community, developing in the civil rights movement and more fully in the FSM itself, without which we who were the most favored could not have begun to recognize our own oppression.Yet nothing was really special about our experience at Berkeley. The FSM is important historically not because it was unique, but because it was symbolic. The rapid spread of conflict through other campuses was not like an army mobilizing under central command, but like mushrooms after fall rain: today one, tomorrow a thousand, because conditions are similar and ripe everywhere. Traveling in the late sixties, I had occasion to see on dozens of campuses the same manifesto of educational criticism and reform that we began in the FSM, written independently from local experience.

          Still, it is well to remember how much of what emerged nationally was prefigured in the FSM. Its first main event was not only a seige but a teach-in -- organized spontaneously, six months before the first Vietnam teach-in at U. Michigan --featuring thirty hours of sock-footed speakers on the roof of the police car, discussing history, law, politics and morality. Inside the climactic sit-in itself, the first Free University was organized, holding its classes among the disaster drums stored in the basement of the administration building. Five years later, four hundred were struggling to grow.

         But the educational creativity of the FSM involved more than the invention of new nameable forms. It conjured a different spirit, which was given flesh in a community of learning. To outsiders, the FSM seemed a formidable political machine, with a charismatic leader and shrill rabble; but I think its functional structure was more an association of autonomous learning collectives. Whatever need appeared, a group of people gathered to learn to deal with it. In this way, over a thousand people organized themselves into thirty groups dealing with historical research, the media, legal perspectives, tactics, publishing, culture, education and self-government. Innocent, skilled, passionate, they created a rogue college of a new sort, coordinated not by bureaucratic hierarchy but by a constant ad hoc cooperation. I had never seen the energy, passion and intellect of my generation unleashed on a mass scale before. It left me an indelible image of the learners we can be together, when we have the chance.

          Some details of this image bear mention. The political style of the FSM didn't spring full-blown, it was the distinctive style of the New Left, developing seven years and here brought to brief triumphant flower. The media recorded its grosser features -- our theater, our bravura, our seriousness and concern for justice -- but could never quite focus on how our style differed from the traditions of Old Left and university alike. Our style was to be concerned with the moral character of our relationships, in private as well as in public. We worked through direct personal involvement in small autonomous interest groups. Our groups were ad hoc, problem-oriented, flexible. They strove to govern themselves by participatory democracy, and to come to concensus on decisions. Concerned with non-coercive moral authority and leadership, and willing to attempt their responsibilities, at the same time we worked against all hierarchies of social control and privilege, and tried to dissolve the line between the managers and the managed with the elixer of personal encounter. We were experimental social scientists, placing practice before theory and guiding it by humane indices of social efficiency. We were also cheerful and funny, and made art as we went.

          I am gilding the lily, but its substance was there. We tried to embody in our own style of action the values that moved us to criticism and dreams. And as in politics, so in education: our community was a flawed model of what we would bring into being, against the institutions that surrounded and alienated us. Every aspect of our style had specific implications for education. As I had occasion to point out in 1966 [1], it implied communities of autonomous learners, moving on their own needs, coming together in collectively-led groups. It implied a rethinking of traditional teacher/student roles, a shift of emphasis from teaching skills to learning skills, a broader definition of learning resources; the rise of off-campus studies and a general decentralization of the learning-place; de-emphasis of the classroom; an attack on the artificial barriers of the disciplines and of lockstep schedules. It implied the rise of problem-oriented studies, relevant to immediate social and personal concerns; their pursuit by ways of learning that engage emotions and values and the deeper aspects of the self; a loosening of the coercive framework of grades and degrees, and a shift to new frameworks of evaluation involving the learner integrally. It implied the de-bureaucratization of education, and, perhaps most important, a general and multidimensional redistribution of power in the community of learning.

         Taking these factors together, the shape of our energy in the FSM defined a program of educational reform which, quite simply, has determined the thrust of reform efforts nationwide in the decade since, within institutions and outside them. I have not mentioned the original issue of civil rights as it applies to education. Our style leaned toward anti-chauvinism; and since 1964 Blacks, Chicanos, women, etc. have been gaining fuller educational rights through slow struggle. But as far as education itself goes, this is a liberal reform, enlarging the clientele but not changing the action. The rest of our style pointed toward more root-radical changes in institutional practice.

         How far have they been pursued? At Berkeley, home of the FSM, the university runs as it did a decade ago. There has been no significant institutional change, unless one counts the conversion from semester to quarter system for the sake of plant efficiency. More black faces and motorized wheelchairs dot the campus; in restricted areas, grades and the classroom process are a bit looser; the fringe of "relevant" courses is more varied. But none of the basic distributions of power, in classroom or out, have shifted significantly, nor any of the values that govern the learning process. What, how, why, when, where, and with whom students learn remain essentially unchanged.

         Nationwide, the picture is more mixed. Some colleges less concerned with conserving traditional academic values, and others struggling to survive the financial crisis of higher education, have chosen to experiment broadly with radical reforms -- Antioch, Sonoma State, and Lone Mountain come to mind, as quite different examples. Together they number perhaps one hundred. At the rest of America's 2,500 colleges, general institutional stasis conceals a tension that is a legacy of the FSM. Some hundreds of thousands of people -- faculty and administrators, as well as students -- have radical educational ideas and ideals; but their strivings are mainly individual and isolated, and come to little. Rare is the college now without its liberated course, its innovative program; rare is the college much affected by them.

         If Berkeley then remains the model multiversity, this is not from sheer inertia, nor because the body of ideas awakened in the FSM lacked power, but because the pending reforms, taken together, constitute no less than a new system of education, too much at odds with the present order to be built piecemeal within it. Consequently, we are at a peculiar moment of institutional change: in response to the pressures for change, higher education is holding its structure rigid and, at the same time, starting to dissolve. The most significant reform action, rapidly spreading now, is in the area of external studies and degrees. Loosely speaking, these programs enable learners to construct their educations as they will, using colleges as but one resource among many, and as avenues of accreditation. In this fashion the problem of basic reform is transferred off-campus, to an arena of experiment ungoverned by college administrations.

         Too much is happening in this arena to describe simply, for it spans our entire society, and houses the work of all those who have found the present system of education to be inadequate for the kinds and styles of learning that they see as necessary. Their organized experiments now include the free universities and alternative schools; growth centers and therapeutic communities; women's consciousness groups and ethnic action cells; crisis centers, switchboards and rap lines; legal and medical education projects; consumer and ecology action groups; collectives working in media and in new technologies; a great variety of political groups; communities of psychic and spiritual learning; and so on.

         If colleges have a monopoly on "higher" education, then indeed this is a chaos. But if not, then these ten thousand organizations, taken together, constitute an alternative system of higher education [2], which has grown during the last decade to enroll over a million learners directly. Its size alone qualifies it in competition with the college system (eight million students); and in fact what colleges are dissolving into, through their external study and degree programs, is this alternative system. Though its forms and practices are wildly varied, on the whole they reflect precisely the program of radical educational reform that was implicit in the working style of the New Left. And though it is sentimental, it is also historically accurate to recognize, in this alternative system, the brief collection of learning-groups that we called the FSM -- now writ large and more various, and still learning what is to be done in a society in crisis.

What Happened to the Movement?

         The FSM's symbolic importance did not end with campus politics and educational reform. In a deeper light, it marked a turning-point in the development of social change in America. Until then, the New Left had kept safely inside the traditions of the 0ld Left, working on behalf of the helpless, the marginal, the disenfranchised: Negroes, farmworkers, Cubans, condemned prisoners .Even the early peace movement had this caste about it. But in the FSM, for the first time, members of the privileged and dominant class came en masse to recognize their own oppression at the hands of the institutions that favored them; rebelled on their own behalf; and struggled to develop new institutions to reform the mainstream of their society. If ten years later the radical left in America seems almost to have disappeared, or to have mutated chaotically, I think it is because no one has fully grasped the implications of this shift of perspective.

         In 1964 the university's motto was "in loco parentis," and it was indeed our parent institution, monitoring the final stages of our preparation for adult citizenship. To turn our anger against its benevolence was shocking to many who saw us basically as ungrateful children. And it was shocking to us as well, for in our acts of defiance we endured a profound psychological transition. Within the family, the adolescent's break with the parents is part of asserting an independent identity. For many individuals, and for us collectively, the FSM was a similar rite of passage.

         If, alone and together, we have not fully passed on to anything at all, and in many ways have fallen back, it is because we had embarked on a rite of passage for which no completion yet exists. For if the university was our surrogate parent, then the other institutions of society, which it resembled so deeply, governed us paternally also. Truly to leave the family, to see ourselves no longer as the dependent extension of their personalities, was to enter an unknown space -- to face the task of creating a new adulthood in a changed society, without ritual, tradition or example to guide us, nor any supporting structure.

         In this light, the legacy of the FSM is attitudinal as well as institutional. Our critics saw us as mindlessly anti-authoritarian, and ignored both what brought us to this state of mind and its consequence. The New Left had grown to challenge not only the actions but the legitimacy of established authority as it was exercised in the narrow domain called "political." Once this challenge was extended a first step, in the FSM, to education, it reverberated quickly throughout our culture. In legal and medical and therapeutic practices, in architecture and city planning, in spiritual affairs, in sex and sexual identity, in marriage and child-rearing and on the production line, the dictates and competence of authority came broadly into question, and not only among the young.

         Our anti-authoritarianism was naive and crude, and carried within it the seeds of its own backlash, and perhaps of its eventual tempering. Its consequences continue to unfold, under the surface of the yearly shifts of national mood. They range from the most public domains to the most intimate -- from the breakdown of the liberal consensus that dominated American politics for a generation, to the breakdown of the cultural consensus about human nature itself and the unleashing of a great variety of exploration into its emotional, psychic and spiritual aspects. Their common theme is reflected in the movement of women who are casting off male authority to discover their own. What is at stake is not vague rebellion, but people's attempts to recover the authority and power to create their own identities and realities. In a culture rich with change and crisis, no less is necessary.

         From the time of FSM on, when the children first said aloud that the emperor had no clothes, the myth that those in charge know where to turn and what to do has been steadily crumbling, in the face not only of mounting evidence to the contrary, but of a changed and critical attitude that recognizes it. Once the Pope, the President, and the AEC have proved fallible, we are on our own, amidst social and species crisis and personal struggle and mystery. It is a state of freedom, and of terror. If so many turn these days to a renewed authoritarianism, embracing gurus and Answers against the chaos, seeking Daddies to replace the Daddies dethroned, it is perhaps a first broad fulfillment of the prediction made by some critics of the FSM, that our direct confrontation of authority would lead toward, rather than away from, the Fascist state we feared. Yet also it led toward the state of autonomy and cooperative self-government which we realized briefly in the FSM and were moved to dream of society-wide. And there is reason to hope that it will lead in time to new styles of leadership and authority, and new forms of their exercise.

          For if the FSM signaled the sudden broadening of a slow revolution in the American mainstream, setting the privileged to work to change the oppressive conditions and consequences of their own lives, this movement has continued to unfold in ways prefigured in the FSM. Seen as social theater, the FSM was a play within a play, and though the great sit-in December 2,1964 was not its last act, it may have been the most pregnant one. The sit-in's outward theater was the show of massive defiance, "our bodies on the line," that disrupted the machine's operation enough to cause university authorities to have us arrested, our parent institution symbolically disowning us as the price of our committment to freedom. But its inner theater was a more tender and full declaration of independence.

         Into Sproul Hall we trooped, the momentum of newly awakened community brought to a focus in us, and singing, so help me, about the love in our hearts. It is true that we barricaded the offices. But we also showed movies on the walls, danced in the corridors, held a religious service, smoked weed and played music in the stairwells, made love on the roof, ate from our cafeteria in the vestibule, sought aid at the pre-meds' infirmary, published leaflets in corners, organized a new educational institution in the basement, and met to govern ourselves in the halls and the johns. In those eighteen hours in liberated territory, at the core of an institution in crisis, waiting for the teargas and murders that came only later, we acted out a precise miniature image of the scope in which we would engage our freedom -- an image of a whole society, newly recreated, many-dimensioned and united in cooperation and purpose.

          Soon the cops came to drag us off to jail, and back into history. But the image lingered; and though it was never reported by the media, spread in the American imagination, and into more prolonged experiment. Two years later it surfaced again, in the theater of the Haight-Ashbury. Again the children were at play in a (partially) liberated domain, this time on a scale that allowed both ambition and the accumulation of mistakes. By the time the Haight was swamped by a flood of the curious, the drifting, the needy and empty, the truly young orphans of antiauthoritarianism, the full spectrum of its thrust was clearly visible. The Haight generated food conspiracies, service switchboards, alternative schools, a free clinic, neighborhood legal services, recycling centers, street theater, religious orders, radical economies, centers of therapy and art, communal life, experimenting one step further with the re-creation of the full wheel of social institutions.

         Many of the Haight's improvisations were firsts of their kind. For all their vigor, they were fragile and incomplete. Many failed, not alone from ineptness and the difficulty of conditions, but as efforts in a slow process of social experiment, to be learned from and reformed and tried again. In the years since 1967, the diverse impulse of the Haight has echoed independently in hundreds of communities, giving rise to the loose national networks of clinics, media, schools, therapists, etc., described above as an alternative educational system, which must be seen also, with its deep extension into the ground of struggle and change in millions of people's private attitudes and lives, as a seed-bed of a renewed, more just and fulfilled society. In this thin tissue of new institutions may be recognized the primordial image of the FSM sit-in, magnified to a next scale of experiment, its details still evolving and its thrust still the same.


         I am both too close to this experiment and too far, to judge how it is doing. Many days I think it is a mirage, a refraction through an arid land's air of what may lie far ahead; or worse, a mere dream of the past. But when I think of how empty much committment was and how difficult the rest has proved, and survey our scanty and precarious accomplishments, I think of the institutions that still govern our lives, and the problems that set some of us to working outside them for change.

         Many more people chose to work for liberal reforms from within, following severely muted versions of radical program and style. Half a generation of their effort has come, on the whole, to very little -- to cosmetic change and, at best, a toehold for future efforts at reform -- and the fundamental problems remain fundamentally untouched. Caught in deep trends, like the university the rest of the dominant institutions grow increasingly out of joint with human needs. The development of their blatant and subtle capacities for repression continues; the rich grow richer and the poor poorer; power continues to centralize. As with Free Speech at Berkeley, the disenfranchised receive only what they are able to win and defend. Meanwhile the capacity of the present order to govern, and even to control, is breaking down, from family to federal government, and the tension of unmet needs gathers beneath the loss of faith.

         And I come back to a question posed us by the FSM. Like a diamond formed under intense heat and pressure, flawed but authentic, we had lived an exemplary community into being for a few brief weeks. How could we recreate and extend it, not in the extraordinary crucible of crisis but in the routine space and time of normal life? Alone and together, we have been working at that question ever since. Yet in a way that does not belie our efforts, the question itself may be false, for the very distinction between routine and crisis is breaking down as our society becomes more managed and less manageable. The crisis is pervasive: it is spiritual, moral, institutional and economic. The crisis is continuous: it is a crisis of a culture and a civilization, as new order struggles to be born from old; it is a crisis of species survival. Slow by the time-scale of the paycheck, it is rapid historically, and builds year by year, encroaching upon the lives of even those who refuse to recognize it, or who flee it. There is little reason to expect it to pass or climax during our lifetimes. Inescapably, our routine and our response to crisis will be synonymous.

         The tensions and dialectic between working within the system and without it will continue. But we are all in the crucible together, with no way to turn down the burner. As the stresses increase, will the ordinary air come to be surcharged with the energy we moved through in the FSM? Perhaps my imagination is shaped unduly by that experience, which now seems dim and legendary. But I think that renewed communities no less intense and purposeful than the one we brought to life, and much more complete and prolonged, will be necessary to survive and surmount what is ahead.




[1] "The Movement and Educational Reform," The American Scholar, Fall 1967.

[2] "How We Learn In America," Saturday Review/Education, 19 Aug.1972.


A version of this text appeared first in California Monthly, December 1974

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