Fifty years after Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement—speech Is increasingly endangered

Mario Savio

Mario Savio

Today at Berkeley, political protests are allowed, but only in two designated places.  A speech code in the student housing guide warns against “verbal abuse” and “hate speech.” 

Allan Brownfeld Global News Centre

(WASHINGTON DC)  October marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California-Berkeley.   To commemorate this student rebellion of the 1960s, the University of California hosted special classes, sing-ins, and a host of other celebratory events.  At Berkeley, the steps of Sproul Hall are named after radical student leader Mario Savio.  A campus dining hall is called the Free Speech Movement Cafe.  

Some former radical student have become disillusioned with the FSM and its results.  Sol Stern, writing in City Journal, reports that the cultural worldview of the New Left, which organized the FSM, is now the reigning orthodoxy at Berkeley.  A biography of Savio, making him a hero of free speech, is required reading for freshmen,  The administration’s “Division of Equity and Inclusion” requires all undergraduates to take a course on “theoretical or analytical issues relevant to understanding race, culture, and ethnicity in America.”

Free speech is not faring very well at contemporary Berkeley or at campuses around the country.  According to Stern, “The great irony is that just as Berkeley now officially honors the memory of FSM, it exercises more thought control over students than the hated ‘multiversity’ that we rose up against a half-century ago.”

Today at Berkeley, political protests are allowed, but only in two designated places.  A speech code in the student housing guide warns against “verbal abuse” and “hate speech.”  Students are urged to report what they think may be “hate crimes.”   Posters for events must be submitted five days in advance to a housing review board before they can be posted.  

Kim Holmes, a former assistant Secretary of State and Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, asks, “What went wrong?  How did a movement ostensibly dedicated to freedom of speech and expression become its opposite?”

In Holmes’ view, “Because the FSM wasn’t really about free speech.  It was about the New Left’s campaign to overturn the old system.  By portraying the liberal (for those times) administration of Berkeley as the moral equivalent of the Jim Crow South, the FSM showed its hand—it wasn’t standing up for the First Amendment of a country it denounced as ‘racist and imperialistic’ but declaring a cultural and political war on that country.  We live with this legacy today.  Not only is free speech on American campuses curbed to suit ideological ends, indoctrinations that should have made a 1960s-era civics teacher blush is commonplace.  To advance the cause of absolute equality based on gender, race and class, the New Left boldly restricts freedom.”

It is, it seems, all about power.  As Bettina Aptheker, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a former FSM leader, says, “The wisdom of true freedom is inexorably tied to who exercises power and for what ends.”  In this environment, the idea of what “freedom” means is determined by what Ms, Aptheker and her like-minded colleagues say it is.  Such a philosophy, of course, is totally at odds with the First Amendment.  It turns the entire idea of free speech on its head, much as totalitarian regimes have done.

What has come to be called the “heckler’s veto” has been a key factor limiting free speech.  Nat Hentoff once pointed out that, “First Amendment law is clear that everyone has the right to picket a speaker, and to go inside a hall and heckle him or her —-but not to drown out the speaker, let alone rush the stage and stop the speech before it starts.  That’s called the ‘heckler’s veto.'”

Now, even a hint of vocal opposition to a speaker, particularly when it comes from the enforcers of political correctness, seems to be enough to eliminate the possibility of that speaker being heard.  During the 2014 commencement season we witnessed a number of examples of this phenomenon at work.  Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew her decision to speak at the Rutgers University graduation because of protests objecting to her role in the Iraq war.  At Smith College, Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew because of protests against her and the IMF’s role in lending money to poor nations.  At Haverford College, a former chancellor at UCLA-Berkeley, withdrew because he was criticized for the use of batons to break up a protest in 2011.  Brandeis University rescinded its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now at the American Enterprise Institute, after protests against her statements criticizing Islam.

In 2009, Yale banned students from making t-shirts with an F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation, “I think  Harvard men are sissies,” from his 1920 novel “This Side of Paradise,” to mock Harvard at their annual football game.  The t-shirt was blocked after some gay and lesbian students argued that “sissies” was a homophobic slur.  “What purports to be humor by targeting a group through slurs is not acceptable,” said Mary Miller, a professor of art history and the dean of Yale College.

Evangelical Christian groups, being politically incorrect, have lost their official status at Tufts University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and  Rollins College in Florida, among others.  At Bowdoin College in Maine, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, which has existed for 40 years, is no longer recognized by the college.  The reason:  the group and its advisers refused to agree that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to hold office as a leader of any group.  According to this standard, a Catholic group could not mandate that its leader be a Catholic, nor could Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, or Hindu groups insure that their leader be an adherent of the faith

In his 2014 commencement address at Harvard, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg  lamented the fact that, “On many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species.  A university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think but how to think.  That requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudice.”

A study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities of 24,000 college students and 9,000 faculty and staff members found that only 35.6% of the students and only 18.5% of the faculty and staff strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.”

Fifty years after Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement,  we see free speech under steady assault in the name of political correctness.  In September 2012, Christopher Newport University in Virginia forbade students to protest an appearance by Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate.  Students must apply 10 days in advance to demonstrate in the college’s tiny “free speech” zone—and Ryan’s visit was announced on a Sunday, two days before his Tuesday visit.

They may be celebrating the Free Speech Movement and its aftermath in Berkeley.  But for the rest of us, the diminution of genuine diversity and free speech on our nation’s campuses and in our larger society, in the name of political correctness, is something to regret, and which we should commit ourselves to reverse.


Allan C. Brownfeld received his B.A. degree from the College of William and Mary, his J.D. degree from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary and his M.A. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland. He has served on the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland.

The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, Mr. Brownfeld has written for such newspapers as THE HOUSTON PRESS, THE RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH, THE WASHINGTON EVENING STAR and THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER. For many years he wrote three columns a week for such newspapers as THE PHOENIX GAZETTE, THE MANCHESTER UNION LEADER, and THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER. His weekly column appeared for more than a decade in ROLL CALL, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in such journals as THE YALE REVIEW, THE TEXAS QUARTERLY, THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW, ORBIS and MODERN AGE.

Mr. Brownfeld served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and was the author of that committee’s 250-page study of the New Left. He has also served as Assistant to the Research Director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to such members of Congress as Reps. Phil Crane (R-Il) and Jack Kemp (R-NY) and to the Vice President of the United States.

He is a former editor of THE NEW GUARD and PRIVATE PRACTICE, the journal of the Congress of County Medical Societies and has served as a Contributing Editor AMERICA’S FUTURE and HUMAN EVENTS. He served as Washington correspondent for the London-based publications, JANE’S ISLAMIC AFFAIRS ANALYST and JANE’S TERRORISM REPORT. His articles regularly appear in newspapers and magazines in England, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and other countries. You can write to Allan at

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