FSM Vets' News & Views

The Beginnings of the Free Speech Movement Within Slate

by Michael Lamport Commons and Hadley Anne Solomon 1990, 2000

What follows is an edited interview of Michael Lamport Commons and his personal account by Hadley Anne Solomon. The interview was conducted 1990-1991.

Hadley Solomon: Tell me about the Free Speech movement, how it got started and why.

MLC: The free speech movement goes back to 1956, which was before I started at Berkeley. I went to Berkeley in 1957. In those years prior to, maybe 1958, before the student union was built, there was a section of land on the campus that was called Sather Gate. Sather Gate was university property but the sidewalk in front of it was city property. Various on campus and off campus groups would speak in front of Sather Gate on what was then city property.

What the university did was to take the whole area by eminent domain including Sather Gate into the campus. We used to speak also inside Sather Gate. There was a raised circle between Wheeler Hall and Dwinelle Hall down towards Sather Gate. There were a couple of trees towards the center of a circular concrete wall. People could stand up on the western part of the wall. A lot of people who would either be walking to and from Wheeler or up the campus or down to Dwinelle would stop by. It was a good place. One could have a reasonably large crowd and there was still plenty of room for people to walk by. You would not get in their way but you would be there and you would attract their attention. So those were the two major places at which people were speaking, and the issues of the day were relatively clear. They were not that different from the issues of today. The players have changed but the issues are the same. For instance, the House Un-American Activities Committee was holding hearings in San Francisco and there was a discussion of those hearings by students on campus at one of these two places. The students also went and demonstrated inside the hearings and outside the building and those outside got washed down the stairs by water from fire hoses. People were arrested.

Solomon: Right.

MLC: In the late 1950's, Berkeley was a very different place. It was a very safe place. I used to forget my briefcase on campus. Hours later, I would come back with it still there. One did not have to lock one's bicycle or anything like that. It was a very different kind of atmosphere. But in this atmosphere there were also a surprising number of police. They would appear at any of these larger discussions. One could not even call these discussions mildly disruptive. We did not use any electronic devices, not even a bullhorn - not like today, with the nice little portable units where one can get good high-fidelity, and have good crowd of two thousand hear it without any effort. This was all unamplified voice.

Solomon: What were the issues that were being discussed?

MLC: Well, we were discussing the freedom rides, we were discussing Cuba, whether Castro would revolutionize it and whether the United States would intervene in Cuba--we were discussing all sorts of issues. Although many of us supported the freedom rides, the situation at the university was not discussed. The campus was not officially segregated nor did it have any obvious discrimination. Yet there were almost no minorities - a few Chinese, a few Japanese, very very few blacks and very few Chicanos.

We would argue whether we should support the dictatorship in South Korea after fighting the Korean War in order to protect democracy. Another big issue which continues to this day was that, at that time, there were very few residence halls at Berkeley. There was Bowles Hall, Stern Hall, and some other places quite far away, but there were really no residence halls. People lived in rooming houses and in apartments if they did not want to join fraternities and sororities. These people had no representation in the campus government.

Solomon: Because they did not live on campus?

MLC: No, just because they were disorganized and they were not affiliated with any specific groups on campus. This is a major issue in universities to this day. There have been many studies of off-campus versus on-campus students and fraternities and sororities versus non-fraternity and non-sorority people, and people who work jobs and people who do not work jobs.

But I would guess another very large topic was the role of the United States in Indochina. Remember, this is 1957-58. There was not much talk about Indochina. Professor Eugene Burdick had written The Ugly American, which we were discussing. People were discussing U.S. foreign policy a good deal as to whether we were to determine whether people lived under socialism if they wanted or lived under capitalism if we wanted to. The crowd usually consisted of thirty, maybe fifty, or on an exciting day a hundred or two hundred people, but it was almost always small. And these discussions then went on at the Terrace; first in what was Edelman Hall. This was where the Bear's Lair was and it had a terrace. Then they built the new student union and it had a terrace. These discussions went on and on and on.

So in 1957, because of all these difficulties, vis--vis the student government and the administration, a number of students banded together and formed a group called the Slate. And Slate was a political party that ran candidates based, not on their house affiliation or their religious affiliation, but on a set of principles. That was why it was called Slate. And Slate leafleted and Slate organized demonstrations. Slate was also an initiative organization. One could take the initiative to do something and that is how one generally obtained political support. In the spring of 1958, there was a constitutional convention and official formation meeting of SLATE. There were discussions concerning the role and policies of student government, compulsory ROTC, the curfew for females, as well as a lot of excitement about the Cuban revolution.

I remember my first demonstration at Berkeley. A bunch of friends including Leonard S. Miller and I went to the Korean Embassy in San Francisco. It was my first trip to San Francisco, in 1957 and 1958, which was my first year at school. And we were all walking in front of this Korean embassy, up and down this steep hill. It was hard to picket because it was on a steep hill, the wind was blowing and it was really cold. We were protesting the fact that Sigmund Rhee was killing people-and we still have an occupying army in Korea. The United States had fought in the Korean War to preserve freedom of speech and democracy, and yet here was this repressive leader of Korea. The issues in that case had not changed much in 1989 but now have.

And the whole question of free speech was a major issue. The reason it was an issue was because the House Un-American Activities was in town holding hearings. The Daily Californian was covering it and it was the height of McCarthyism. The House Un-American Activities Committee was making out as if American Communists were horrendous spies who were going to bring the United States down. In actuality, most American Communists were patriotic, they just held some totalitarian socialist ideas. Most Communist Party members left the party once they found out more about the Soviet Union, the various show trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the secret report of the Communist party in 1954, the reoccupation of Hungary. In Slate, an issue came up where some members said the Hallinan brothers had a father who was supposedly a Communist. The sons supposedly had Communist Party sympathy. The question was: could they be in Slate? Was Slate going to be "tainted" by having Communist members? We had a long series of debates. We decided that we were not going to follow the national Democratic Party practice and we were not going to ask people about their political beliefs or other political affiliations. In fact, anybody could join Slate, period. We did not really care what their politics were.

We did not even care whether they supported the Slate or not, in fact, any member of Slate could vote on the Slate. So the Slate was not only a slate of principles but a slate of candidates that ran for student office. The first election of 1958 did not go well. But in 1959, David J. Armor, this very attractive guy ran for president on the Slate ticket. Dave used to work at Rand Corporation as a sociologist and is now at George Mason University. He is a classic liberal which would now be a neo-conservative. The Slate was overwhelmingly elected. The university administration, the Dean of Students was visibly upset by this. And all of a sudden we found that a rule called Rule 17 was being invoked to keep people from speaking either on or off campus, like at dorms.

By Spring 1958, I had joined Stiles Hall which was the local YMCA. Stiles Hall had various projects. They had a grant on the Fund for the Republic, I think some sort of Rockefeller Foundation activity. The project that I worked on was providing speakers with various issues to debate for or against. It was usually a debate between two people. For instance, I had the counsel for the House Un-American Activities Committees debate Gus Hall, the head of the Communist Party who later ran for president on the Communist Party ticket. That was held off-campus in a residence hall, which was still part of the university. But we could not get it held on campus. This was the first time that we had a confrontation with the administration as to whether we could hold a meeting on campus. This issue became key in the second Free Speech movement.

So the residence hall was all right, but another place on campus was not all right. The university administration really did not have a well thought-out policy. We demanded that when the Sather Gate became part of the university that it remain a free-speech area. We said that state universities are public institutions. Therefore we are guaranteed the right to assemble and petition the government. The administration building was right next to Sather Gate, where later the very big demonstrations took place. At one point around this time, the campus police arrested a group of people who were speaking at Sather Gate. I do not remember who exactly they "arrested." I do not remember what the issue was, it could have been Laos, it could have been any of these issues. It was not very important what the issue was, the point was they arrested students for publicly talking to other students on the campus.

Solomon: I thought that there was a law or something passed that teachers who were going to teach at a state university, like Berkeley, could not give their opinions on issues like that.

MLC: Well in the university they had loyalty oaths. They asked all the faculty and staff to sign one. A lot of people quit the faculty at Berkeley at that time. So all the faculty that were left were people who had signed the loyalty oath.

Solomon: Yes.

MLC: All right. Alex Sheriffs was not unlike a lot of people who become Dean of Students in universities. He came out of the sorority-fraternity system and was a psychologist. He was very conservative and basically had a paranoid view of the students as manipulative. Let us put it this way, there was no integration of fraternities, whatsoever. There was not only racial discrimination, but there was also rampant religious discrimination on the campus, lots of open anti-Semitism. I remember that while walking to Bowles Hall, I heard a group of students talking. In those days, residence halls were completely segregated by sex: Bowles was for men, Stern Hall was for women. I was walking up the hill to Bowles Hall and some people were walking down the hill said, "Yes, Slate, they're all a bunch of Communist traitors." I thought, "Well, I'd find out what Slate was about." In fact I think it was what pushed me into Slate.

There was one guy in Slate who lived in Bowles Hall. He won the world teeter-tottering endurance contest. He teeter-tottered in front of Bowles Hall for three days or something. So you can see that even the political activists were not terribly boring. This was the quality of political activism in 1958, with a teeter-totter guy as a member of Slate. I would say that the Slate membership tended toward the scruffy side in general, except for Dave Armor.

If one did a poll now, one would find a lot of people had parents who were blacklisted. Most of them had quit the Communist party long before the 1950's. Still many were blacklisted. Even though many parents had gone through this repression, there was very little discussion about this with their children. There was little discussion whether or not the parents had been in the Communist Party or blacklisted because of the fear of being found out. My family never was blacklisted or anything like that even though my mother was a party member for a very short time in the 30's. My father was called before the House Un-American Committee. But he was never a member of the party and knew only tangentially about what was going on. So nothing happened. I did not find this out until I was about 40. I found the subpoena for my father and asked my mother about it.

My friend Jeffrey Cole's father, Lester Cole, was part of the Hollywood Ten. Not only was he blacklisted but he went to jail for contempt of Congress. He took the first amendment instead of the fifth when they asked him questions about whether he had been a member of the Communist Party. We were in two classes with the same teacher in the ninth grade. The teacher continually harassed him because of his father. A group of us told her to cut it out. What his father did was his business and Jeffrey was not his father. She persisted so David Cahn and I led a strike, our second one. We walked out of the classroom with about six other boys and went down to the principal office. I stayed down there for the rest of the year. The teacher was later transferred. I heard that she committed suicide a few years later.

David and I led anther protest in the sixth grade when the principal suspended Winthrop J. Fraser, a kid we hated, for letting air out of tires of cars parked on Gardner Street, a public street adjacent to the Gardner Street School. We lowered the flag to half mast. Someone raised it. The next day we raised it upside down to indicate distress. Again, it was fixed. On the third day David figured out how to put a slip knot in the line so when we raised it to half mast, upside down, we tossed the line until the knot when over the pole and we were able to cinch it. David spent a few days in the principal's office. I spent about a month because I would never agree it was wrong.

So I had a history of this whole thing. My life-long friend Michelle Katz was a member of Slate. Her father, Charles Katz, defended the Hollywood Ten. I think my mother and her mother were in a cell together. From my mother's account, it was incredible boring, all top down lecturing, totalitarian and very ineffective. They put on a few small fund raisers.

And yet we students were willing to stand up publicly during this McCarthy period. Any time we went to a demonstration off-campus, there were people there with cameras, wearing trench-coats, taking pictures. Any time there was a petition, we knew that there were people copying down the names. We knew that Slate was infiltrated with FBI informers. We knew this from the very beginning, and yet this did not deter us. Well, I am sure it deterred some people, but it did not deter the people who were there. So, there was an extreme high level of excitement. I do not know how to communicate the level, but here were a small group of students, mainly undergraduates, opposing the University of California. There were no student demonstrations anywhere in the nation. There was no leadership or support from any adult groups. These were people who were just students who were thinking these things through for themselves in the afternoon, out on the circle, or out on Sather Gate, debating the issues, talking things over on the terrace. We used to discuss what we were going to do and where to go from there. There was essentially no Communist party, no Trotskyist party, no Maoists. These were people who I do not think had political allegiance to any particular party or group. When the campus police would come by Sather Gate, they would ask the people to disperse and then they would take hold of people, handcuffing them and taking them away.

And when that happened we immediately met over in Stiles Hall on Bancroft across from the campus. We wanted a way to prevent and forego these arrests while still being able to speak our minds freely. We called the ACLU and the ACLU was absolutely of no help, because they took no interest in this as far as I can remember.

I then formed the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, which later became the Student Civil Liberties Union. I was involved because the leadership at Stiles Hall (The campus YMCA) had appointed me to the position of organizing speakers in conjunction with the YWCA. My co-organizer was a tri-delta sorority president, who wanted to become an elementary school teacher. We were presenting very controversial people at the YWCA in a lovely room off a garden. Quite often the program was organized as debates. I didn't have any particular status in Slate, I was just a member. But because I was organizing these debates, I came to be seen as Mr. Speech. I was a sophomore. I got some students together but I could not write a brief. I did not have the slightest idea how to defend the people who had gotten arrested. But we got people together and met on the second floor of Stiles Hall. We met around a fold-up bridge table a few times. It was cold and damp. We wrote a short brief, and we sent it around for comment. We then revised. We wrote and distributed leaflets and we wrote letters to the faculty, and we even got some faculty. I remember this professor Van Dusen-Kennedy. He was a professor of mine who supported us. We argued strictly on first-amendment grounds that Rule 17 had to be repealed. Seymour Martin Lipsett said he would support us but it later turned out he was an informer, and spoke out against the students. Lewis S. Feuer interpreted all this in the Freudian terms that we were rebelling against our parents in The Conflict of Generations. I think if anything our parents were rather proud of us, at least many of them. This was a really small group with Slate having about thirty, between twenty and thirty, people in it, and of that, maybe twelve activists. One member, Fred, had been in the army and had maybe been overseas and was a budding journalist. He was like one of the old men in the group. Another one was Wilson Carey McWilliams, Jr., who is a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

And we petitioned the president of the university and the chancellor, because we thought it was the Dean of Students and campus security who were making these decisions. We said that we wanted to meet with the chancellor, who at that time was Glenn T. Seaborg, a Nobel Prize winner. I remember going in with one other person as a sophomore. We sat down in his luxurious office. Alex Sheriffs, the Dean of Students, was there and we said we really thought we had the right to, one, speak, period. I pointed to the University of California at Berkeley shield, and pointed out that it called for light or something like that. I asked how could there be light if students could not select themselves who to hear and what to think. Any student had a right to speak on campus. Students should be able to invite whoever they want to speak on campus. The purpose of the university was fundamentally connected with free speech and discussion and the Chancellor, Glen T. Seaborg, the Nobel Prize winner, agreed to that.

And then the question was off-campus people. We were able to quickly resolve the on-campus issue and get Rule 17 only applied to time and place issues. We also were not to disrupt classes, which we never had. In fact, at the height of the free speech movement, between 1962 and 1964, there was really very little disruption of classes. There was never any violence. I mean, not even minor violence, as far as I can remember. And the university eventually revised Rule 17. The academic senate, which existed, had something to say but it was essentially the university that made the rules. This later came up at Columbia during the very large strikes, because it was no longer the case that the administration unilaterally made rules in a lot of universities. It does at Harvard and places like that, but at a number of universities it does not. You have a tripartite government of faculty, students, and administration.

Solomon: So the big thing was trying to get . . . off-campus, these people that lived off-campus.

MLC: That and also to get the right to speak, at Sather Gate in particular. We wanted Sather Gate to be declared a free-speech area. We arrived at that understanding with the Dean. We also came to the conclusion that the school could control the time and place of the discussions and we would have to notify them. However, we had a big argument as to whether discussions could be held for six hours or twelve hours, and the question they always brought up in response was the security of the place. We tried to point out that there were no security issues, but they felt that it was necessary to have a large contingent of police there, which there always were, watching the discussions and intimidating the bystanders. I think that the whole time I was at Berkeley, which was four years, I might have spoken twice at such an outdoor meeting. I only spoke at informal things since I was not a very rowdy person.

But after we had won this case with the Dean, Konrad Adenauer had been invited to speak at the Greek Theater. A number of people wanted to disrupt it. At a meeting of the Student Civil Liberties Union, I remember saying that we had just fought for the right of anybody to speak and we had therefore the duty to let other people speak. I was the only person who supported that initially, and then everybody finally agreed.

Solomon: Konrad?

MLC: He was the Chancellor of Germany. He was pretty conservative. There were questions as to whether he was really a Nazi sympathizer or not. There are still, I think, questions in Germany about that. He had done some things that people did not think were right. So they really wanted to disrupt his speech. I remember Maurice Zeitland wanted to disrupt and I remember the issue of disrupting came up twice. It came up first at the Student Civil Liberties Union Meeting and then at a Slate meeting.

So anyways, my founding of the Emergency Students Civil Liberties Committee and the resulting Student Civil Liberties Union was sort of the official beginning of the free speech movement. You have to remember, all of these committees are ad hoc.

Solomon: Yes.

MLC: They are not part of a government, nor a political party, and there is no standing committee. They are ad hoc committees, meaning people just came together to do these things. The committees do not go on after the issues cool down. Slate lasted a few more years than these ad hoc committees because it was a political party. It ran candidates and had more regular meetings. But the Student Civil Liberties Union did not meet regularly, and Rule 17 would wax and wane according to what the administration was doing with it. So from about 1959 through 1964 there was peace.

However, demonstrations started to get decidedly bigger in the early 1960s, for a number of reasons. After the election of Kennedy, the CIA was expanded tremendously and so was the war in Indochina. California was in a peculiar position of really having a lot of contact with Indochina, you know, Vietnam, Laos, and so forth. So we were very aware of what was going on and there were protests in 1960 against the war in Indochina, even before the election. That was another demonstration that I participated in. The Young Democrats from California got thrown out of the Young Democrats of America because we passed a plank not supporting the war. It was probably the first national effort, that I remember.

By 1961, there were beginnings of demonstrations in Oakland against the build-up in Indochina. The whole Civil Rights Movement had really exploded. The amount of political activity at Berkeley had grown substantially, from this handful of ten to twelve activists in 1958 up to hundreds of people. The crowds had gotten larger. Seaborg had gone elsewhere and there was a new chancellor. Alex Sheriffs revoked the agreement on Rule 17. Jack Weinberg, who was an ex-student, had come to speak at the campus, and the school police tried to arrest him but the students surrounded the car. I was at UCLA at the time, but that is all written up very standardly in books. But I think there were three key elements in the demonstrations' getting bigger. One was, this was not a new struggle at Berkeley since it had gone on, starting in 1956. The students knew all about it. They were well-prepared and they were well thought-out.

Ronald Reagan had become governor by the time of the actual confrontations and he brought in helicopters and gassed the students with tear gas and so forth. But basically, I think, by the time they arrested Jack Weinberg, the Free Speech Committee had people like Bettina Aptheker, who was a well-known student with Herbert Marcuse, who was at San Diego. She publicly said she was a Communist. She became a professor at UC Santa Cruz later on. But there were all sorts of people left and right. The students overwhelmingly opposed the position of the administration, and so did the faculty. In the past, the faculty had not been very supportive. They had been forced to sign a loyalty oath in the early fifties and some had resigned over the issue. They never ever came out against any of these sort of things. But by the time of the big free speech movement, the faculty had decidedly moved towards free speech. The freedom rides were successful, leading to a Civil Rights Act in 1964, which has lead to a tremendous amount of integration. Our campus activism was extremely successful. Probably more successful than any national administration had ever been. However, I am not saying that we were the freedom riders.

Solomon: But that started a whole chain of events.

MLC: Yes, but it also supported a large number of things. We sent a lot of people on freedom rides in those days. I would say, the Vietnam case clearly started at Berkeley and surely the free speech movement started in Berkeley. Now the only off-campus support was that Stiles Hall provided space to meet and the Fund for the Republic was financing the guy who was studying these kinds of issues, and we did talk to him. I think the Fund for the Republic was a Rockefeller program. Off campus there was KPFA. The news of the goings-on were carried rather well by KPFA. KPFA is a listener-supported radio, one of the first, maybe the only, and is different from national public radio stations. It was really independent, and it was really just controlled by the listeners, not by universities, not by the federal government. The station did not depend on grants of that sort.

The parallel beginnings to free speech on campus in Berkeley was KPFA, which also started in Berkeley, but much earlier. It was devoted to the history of 20th-century music. Pierre Boulez put on a program of 20th-century music that lasted three years. That was one of the things I remember; that no other radio station would go through the whole 20th-century repertoire. Alan Rich, a famous music critic, I remember, reviewed music. William Mandel reported news of the Soviet Union. The Daily Cal quickly, by the second year, had become very astute at reporting events as they actually occurred. In fact, in my whole life, the only newspaper, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, that could report things even moderately accurately was The Daily Cal. The Harvard University Crimson or any student newspaper or otherwise had that quality of reporting and even-handedness as The Daily Cal. They could actually count the crowd, not ask the police how many were there. The police would say there were six demonstrators, and there would be more like six hundred, you know.

Solomon: Yes.

MLC: It was just unbelievable, the distortions. By the time of the actual free speech movement, about a third of the people involved were veterans of these earlier things. Everybody had learned how to organize, write, leaflet, how to make placards and get on TV news. All these kinds of things had been acquired. For instance, one of the very early creative things was to have a great variety of placards. They were always carried in a group and a decision had to be made when and where to protest. But if everybody wrote their own, it was very clear that every person had thought through what they were going to say.

The free speech movement was unique in movements in the United States, student movements especially. Not only did we demand the right to speech, but we protected the right of others, much like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) does. But in fact the ACLU does this by going to court. The Student Civil Liberties Union and the resulting free speech movement did not use the courts, at least in the beginning. They basically went to the streets and protested and made their case directly to the community, directly putting pressure on the people who were making the decisions. No matter what the administration tried to do, if you go to Berkeley today, there are still the tables and the demonstrations. So the administration not only failed then to constrain free speech, they continue to fail now.

The repercussions of the movement however have gone to such extremes that the latest version of the free speech movement was supported by the National Review at Dartmouth University. There, right wing students were putting out a magazine or a newspaper lambasting someone who they described as a dumb, left-wing black professor. They now are enjoying the fruits of our labors. The administrations are still opposing their right to publish this material as well. Administrations never seem to learn the lesson that there is no speech by members on or off campus that should be controlled in any way, shape, or form. A university is a place of all places that should be a sanctuary for all ideas, good or bad, and no one should make any judgments about them whatsoever for anyone else.

Everybody really has the responsibility to decide whether they want to listen or not, and if they listen, to make their own choices. If universities do not support such inquiry then they are not really universities. They are then trade schools, finishing schools, or something else, but they are surely not universities. One has even seen in the late 1980's at Harvard, the same issues come up about speech and assembly. The questions involve who has the right or does not have the right to heckle and whether heckling can be allowed at all. Also, whether there can be placards during meetings.

One would think that an issue that goes back to Athens would be resolved by now. Some of these issues are quite adequately discussed in many places, that the issue of whether we are going to have a tyranny, oligarchy, mob rule, or a democracy - that is an issue that, at least in our Constitution, has been decided. We are going to be a democracy and everybody is protected by the first amendment. Yet there are those people who think that the experts should make those decisions, which is what the Platonist would argue. I do not really think any of these issues are new. I think every time we go through the disagreements, the institutionalization of free speech gets stronger.

I happened to do a research study just on this issue in universities. Twenty-eight participants from the Harvard University community were interviewed. The subjects included students, faculty members and administrators. All participants were working, teaching or studying in the field of ethics. Four participants were women, and two were African-American. The second section consisted of a dilemma involving a conflict between students and administration on the issue of free speech. Participants were probed for responses in the domains of justice, epistemology, attachment, and the good. Interviews were conducted in person and recorded on audiotape for later transcription. Here are some sample answers (Commons & Richards, in press).

Example1 (Systematic Stage in transition to Metasystematic Stage)

Participant: If the university says this to the student [that students should always lend their support to university goals], why would this be bad, you were saying? Why should we? The question is what is the argument for all rallying behind anyone within an institution. It denies the sense of social responsibility if we're always to rally around institutions; it makes us not critics, but ralliers, followers, enthusiasts. For what? For the university, that abstraction? Why should I rally around it...? I'll rally around it insofar as it represents things that I think important. And one of the things that I think important is the students saying this would be, that it would stimulate independent and critical thought, and doesn't try to rally around a notion except in the notion in those who want to rally around this flag and without threatening those who don't in some official way.

Example 2 (Metasystematic Stage)

Participant: I'm not certain that I would want some veto power but it would probably be on the grounds similar to Constitutional grounds vetoing what Congress does. If it violates fundamental principles. So I'm unclear what the relationship between the president and the faculty should be, but it would move more heavily towards faculty subject to very few restraints and faculty participation going toward a great voice whether or not it would fully [allow] election of the dean and faculty committees and things of that sort. But I think the president is functioning. I think the faculty could get all locked up. They could all become one thing and refuse to hire anyone outside who's not part of that model. Or they could develop vendettas and become very destructive and drive people out on personal or ideological grounds... It would become a closed institution rather than an open institution. And I think part of the role of the president might be to assure that a university remains, not equally open to everything, but remains an institution in which ideas have a chance to develop and there's no formal closure to any of the competing the set of ways of thinking about a subject.

We think that some the faculty and administration had a great deal of difficulty recognizing that, while they would like to have academic freedom, that means that they have a responsibility to let students have academic freedom, too. I do not think they have ever learned it. The question of how long does this kind of thing go on, I think Jefferson understood it goes on forever, that essentially human beings are so constituted that even though the culture deeply reflects this thing, there will always be controversy and one person trying to repress another. For related views of just students, see Norma Haan's work on student participants in the FSM and Candee and Kohlberg's reanalysis of it.

The free speech movement seems to momentarily lose every battle and yet it has won the war. Yet speech in small groups such as within a group of friends in this society is still highly controlled. We have three taboo subjects in this society: politics, which no one discusses except with their closest friends. No one discusses religion. Of course, sex is a taboo subject. In fact, the most pernicious form of free speech control is taboos. What are taboos, but control against speaking about obvious truths, or not obvious truths, but obvious issues? There is one last issue surrounding free speech that is critical that society has moved on. That is that one is not allowed to offer deceptive contracts. It is another limitation on speech, but the purpose is so one can not offer deceitful contracts.

Another import taboo is the discussion of race and the related national origin. Race is still little less talked about among the general populace. There is a continuing discussion among a relatively small circle of academics and intellectuals. For example, the frequent euphemistic misnomer "minority" is used to avoid reference to race, even when the "minorities," who are always non-Whites, are in the "majority" in big US cities. Some of the taboo-status that still surrounds the subject in this very context may be seen in the controversies over "hate speech." Speech codes still roil on university campuses to this day. "Race" may still be the biggest taboo subject left in American despite or because of the massive influx of "newcomers" of various racial and cultural origins.

Limitations on Speech

So that is the other area where free speech is an open question, even among people who strongly believe in it. This issue is the issue of national security. There is another area that is still conflictual. The question is whether reporters have the right to protect their sources. Free speech in that case would mean no freedom of the press if one has to name your sources.

There is also the question of state secrets and free speech. I used to think that it may not have been necessary to keep the atom bomb secret from the Germans. But now I think we should have kept the atom bomb a secret. We thought they were working on it and we worried that they knew we were working on it. We did not give them results of it, but even if they had the information, it is doubtful to me that they could have mounted the kind of effort to really do anything in retaliation. They did not really have much of a means of delivery by the end of World War II anyway, since we completely knocked out their air force. Their V-2's could have atom-bombed England, but could not have done much more than that.

But, on the other hand, there really is this issue of the right to privacy. The right to privacy is not written anywhere in the Constitution. But I think it is a common-law right and it is rarely contrasted with the right of free speech. The lander laws in some sense are of some protection for the person in harm.

One has some obligation to the buyer to tell the truth about products and that is a limitation on speech. This is a very weird example, but the cigarette companies have agreed not to advertise on TV, something I surely do not support. I think they should have the right to advertise on TV, and alcohol also. That does not mean there should be illegal substances that you can buy over the counter.

Solomon: But they should be allowed to advertise.

MLC: Yes, I think it is an unwarranted restriction on speech. But again, if one is in the business of selling, one has to make claims about something. If those claims are not generally true, then one should be liable for them. So that is a limitation that has to do with implied contracts. If a company shows healthy people smoking cigarettes and never shows sick people, I think the message is very clear, that one will be healthy if one smokes. Then in view they are liable for they engaged in deception.

I do not think the debate about speech has gone on actively in this society, so those areas that still persist I think need examination. Even the American Civil Liberties Union lost a lot of supporters when they fought to have the Neo-Nazis in Chicago have the right to march through Skokie, Illinois. In Skokie, the right to speak and assemble was pitted against a deliberately provocative march through people's neighborhood. The neighborhood was made up of many Jewish WW II death-camp survivors, which is, of course, why Neo-Nazis chose that area in the first place. The Neo-Nazis were, literally, spoiling for a fight and the media attention that would result. Free speech won. But hate speech remains a problem as politically correct notions of speech have come to the fore.

The attacks on the American Civil Liberties Union by Bush during the 1988 campaign mildly strengthened it with lots of people joining. So I do not think the free speech movement is a lost battle, but I think it is a continuous one. Remember, free speech existed in the city states of Greece for hundreds of years and then was wiped out by the oligarchies and by Rome. Although there was some free speech in Rome, Rome was always really run by the oligarchies. It is not clear that one can protect free speech without having a sizable minority involved. It is always going to be struggle. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, we knew that. I think that it is why they were willing to go to jail. I think they feared a closed society more than they feared jail. No one stayed in jail very long. The attempt to break up demonstrations has really failed in the United States. It has never really worked well.

With regard to the question of whether demonstrations can block access and whether there are limits, I think that it is clear that there is a difference between a demonstration where there is a speech involved and whether one is trying to block entrances. In the Union movement, they have tried to block entrances, and the anti-abortion, right-to-life movement they have blocked entrances. I do not see anything in free speech that says one has the right to block other people from going about their daily lives. Blocking people actually robs them of a right. Yet these people claim that it is a free speech issue. So when someone occupies a building in a form of protest to support free speech - which happened, obviously, in the free speech movement - if one gets arrested for trespassing, one knows one has been trespassing. However, if one is doing it outside the building, then one is not trespassing. Because in one case one is interfering with function and the other is not. That does not mean one should not do those things, it just simply means one should realize what one is doing. That it is civil disobedience. It is more of a strike than it is a protest.

So that is about all I have to say. Do you have questions?

Solomon: What do you think McCarthyism had to do with this whole thing?

MLC: Maybe some part of the free speech movement was a response to McCarthyism. I told you, for me, I think it was personal. Many of my friends' parents were blacklisted. I grew up in Hollywood. That was completely unfair. Someone who was involved went back and did a study - the number of people went into academia from Slate and the Free Speech Movement. It was just incredible. Probably a quarter of the people became academics of one form or another. This was a very thoughtful, academic, bright group of people. Norma Hahn did a study with Larry Kohlberg where they looked at the stage of performance of the people involved. They could not believe how high-stage the answers of the leaders were. Some of the followers had much lower-stage answers, of course. I would say it was unusual because these were people who had thought it through. I do not think that all demonstrators are of that sort. The conditions under which this type of result occurs are usually conditions under unfairness where people have to assess the risks and the benefits. They had to assess the risks of living in a totalitarian society, which were somewhat real in the 1950s. We were sliding towards a totalitarian state during the McCarthy period and we were concerned. People knew that and were willing to take substantial risks, personal and otherwise. Lots of us thought we would never be able to get a job because they had been blacklisted. But they we were unusually bright. What was your question? I do not think I answered it.

Solomon: Just that the free speech movement was a response to McCarthyism.

MLC: Oh, yes, I do not think there is any question about it. But the movement was a response to the whole Cold War also, not just McCarthyism. Most of us in the 1960s had read about Stalin. I remember reading about the thing in Moscow where they talked about all the crimes of Stalin. I think that if that had not gone on, if Khrushchev and Molotov and those people had not spoken up, things might have been very different. We thought that there was a good possibility that Beria had shot Stalin and then Beria was murdered. But some think that, if Stalin had still been there, improving the climate in the US would have been very hard to do. But everybody thought that, although the new Soviet leaders were really very totalitarian, they were not like Stalin or Hitler. They were not madmen. We thought they were rather weak. History has proven we were right. One would not want to go fight them on their territory, but one would not expect that they would do very well anywhere else either. Their history with Afghanistan proved that they were very weak. There were some short term exceptions, like in Ethiopia. But they were not able to control Ethiopia either, for very long. Some of thought the Soviet Union was a paper tiger, and not much of a threat. But we did think nuclear weapons were a threat. That was another very big thing in the 1950s--nuclear weapons.

Solomon: And in the 1960s?

MLC: Yes, oh yes. But some of us knew all these people who were on different sides of the nuclear weapons issue. Some knew Albert Wallsteader, who lived in the Hollywood Hills. He was one of the people who made up mutual assured destruction. It was not such a large industry that you did not know the leaders. So that the people opposing nuclear weapons did know the people promulgating them. I knew Richard Pearl very well. He went to camp Roosevelt and then Hollywood High School. I was sort of a mentor for him for a while. There was not the huge gap that there is now.

Solomon: So are there loyalty oaths today?

MLC: Oh, yes.

Solomon: Oh, there are?

MLC: Sure. Universities are still very authoritarian. There are exceptions. Columbia University is less authoritarian now. There is a complete misreading of the 1960s by people like Benjamin Bloom. The students in the free speech movement were not supporting hippiedom for the most part. They were not supporting the notion that one could do whatever one wanted. That was a very big confusion. We just simply said one could talk, and write about whatever one wanted. There is a difference between talking and doing. I think we were rather well-dressed. I think the underground dressing styles, with the fatigues now which has been very popular in the South, always moves from the "hip" areas out. It is very interesting. Of course there was a rebellion in the mid-1960s, so different clothing was a badge of rebellion against authority.

I do know, however, this for free speech is a kind of struggle just goes on. I think the change so far has been extremely rapid, much faster than I ever thought. But there is still a long way to go to get to the point where people will respect janitors speaking out on university issues. I think we are a long way from that. Yet a janitor's job depends on the university being excellent. If the university was terrible, there would be fewer students, fewer grants and less money to pay janitors.

If they have some way to make the university better, I surely want to hear it, whether it is right or wrong. Unions are forming in universities. One reason unions come about is because people become disaffected. Not only are faculty at institutions of higher learning forming unions. Graduate students and teaching assistants are also forming unions. One reason people are disaffected, is because they do not have an effective voice. If they have an effective voice, they do not feel they need a union. Pretty much everybody agrees on the goals. The problem is, without representation and speech, they can not be effectively heard.

Solomon: What was the historical lesson?

MLC: There were many events that lead up to changes in world-wide culture. This story has presented a view that they were chaotic and unplanned events, at least as far as my role. Yet, without a strong commitment to free-speech, an undergraduate like me could not have played the role I did.

Anything else?

Solomon: No, thank-you.


For pointing out typos and misspellings in general, I have Douglas Hill and Bill Ehlert to thank, as well as Marty Hitt for sharing his reminiscences as well. William M. Mandel answered some questions wmmmandel@earthlink.net. He reports that there is a "little additional information, and a markedly different interpretation than most" to be had from his autobiography, Saying No to Power (especially, pp. 393-400).  At this writing I have not myself seen this book.


Daniel Candee, Lawrence Kohlberg (1987). Moral judgment and moral action: A reanalysis of Haan, Smith, and Block's (1968) Free Speech Movement data. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 52(3), 554-564.

Michael L. Commons, & Francis A. Richards. (In Press). Organizing Components into Combinations: How Stage Transition Works. Journal of Adult Development.

Lewis Samuel Feuer (1969). The conflict of generations : the character and significance of student movements. New York: Basic Books.

Norma Haan, M. B. Smith, Jack Block (1968). Political, family and personality correlate of adolescent moral judgment. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 10, 183-201.

Norma Haan. (1994). Hypothetical and actual moral reasoning in a situation of civil disobedience. In Bill Puka (Ed); et al. (1994). The great justice debate: Kohlberg criticism. Moral development: A compendium, Vol. 4. (pp. 179-194). New York, NY, USA: Garland.

William J. Lederer, & Eugene Burdick. (1958). The ugly American. New York: Norton.

William M. Mandel (1999). Saying No to Power. California: Berkeley: Creative Arts.

Michael Miller (2000). Organizing for social change: what we did right, what went wrong, how we can overcome. Social Policy, 4-12.