Berkeley Free Speech Movement Begins

Students at the University of California, Berkeley, launched a decade of student activism, protest, and social change known as the Free Speech movement.

Summary of Event

In the fall of 1964, after a September 14 ban on all political activities—from leafleting to soliciting funds—at the edge of the Berkeley campus of the University of California (UC), student activists launched a protest that soon spread campuswide. The Free Speech movement, as the students proclaimed themselves, signaled an end to silence and conformity at the nation’s colleges and universities, announcing a new era of social protest, political questioning, and unrest. Berkeley Free Speech movement
Free Speech movement, Berkeley
Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests
United States;counterculture
Student protest movement
University of California
[kw]Berkeley Free Speech Movement Begins (Sept. 14, 1964)
[kw]Free Speech Movement Begins, Berkeley (Sept. 14, 1964)
Berkeley Free Speech movement
Free Speech movement, Berkeley
Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests
United States;counterculture
Student protest movement
University of California
[g]North America;Sept. 14, 1964: Berkeley Free Speech Movement Begins[08190]
[g]United States;Sept. 14, 1964: Berkeley Free Speech Movement Begins[08190]
[c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 14, 1964: Berkeley Free Speech Movement Begins[08190]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 14, 1964: Berkeley Free Speech Movement Begins[08190]
[c]Vietnam War;Sept. 14, 1964: Berkeley Free Speech Movement Begins[08190]
Savio, Mario
Aptheker, Bettina
Weinberg, Jack
Towle, Katherine
Brown, Edmund G., Sr.
Kerr, Clark

UC Berkeley’s administration had long feared radicalism. The original ban against political activities on the campus dated back to the 1930’s. Students then moved their information tables to the area just outside campus, where they existed without university interference until the fall of 1964. In the 1950’s, during the McCarthy era, UC Berkeley’s administration limited political speech on campus. Even presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson was subject to the ban, addressing students from his convertible parked at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph Avenues, just off campus. In 1957, students gave the university a target for their fear of radicals by forming SLATE SLATE , a student political party that demanded a cooperative bookstore and an end to compulsory participation in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) classes. Most significant, SLATE rejected anticommunism. In 1961, the chancellor banned SLATE from campus, effectively disenfranchising many graduate students and contributing further to a sense of disaffection.

The paternalistic attitude toward the student body clashed with its changing composition. By the early 1960’s, the baby-boom generation had arrived on campus, expanding student enrollment to twenty-five thousand and reducing the ratio of tenured faculty to students. Graduate students represented a larger proportion of the students and did more of the teaching. These older students chafed the most under campus regulations. In addition, UC Berkeley had recently constructed its first high-rise dormitories, breaking the fraternity system’s conservative hold over campus life. More students also lived off campus in apartments, reflecting their greater independence and sense of individual responsibility.

Politically, the Civil Rights movement had touched Berkeley students by 1964. Few could ignore the racial division within the city of Berkeley itself. The Berkeley chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) recruited students to protest job discrimination by local employers. That fall, dedicated student volunteers returned from Freedom Summer activities in the Deep South, determined to sign up new civil rights workers and raise funds. The ragtag assemblage of activists and their political tables at the entrance to campus provoked concern on the part of the administration with the university’s public image.

On September 14, Dean Katherine Towle informed the students of the prohibition on political activity at the campus edge, although she personally opposed it. She listened to student complaints but lacked the power to revoke the ruling. Campus police arrested five students for violating the regulations. Four hundred students responded by signing statements claiming equal guilt and demanding equal punishment. Student activists demanded not just a return of the right to set up tables at the edge of campus but the end to any regulation of political activity on campus. They based their demands on the constitutional right of free speech.

On October 1, to call attention to their demands, students set up political tables directly in front of the administration building. When the police arrested activist Jack Weinberg, students began a spontaneous sit-in, surrounding and immobilizing the police car for thirty-two hours. During the sit-in, students removed their shoes, climbed on top of the police car, and spoke to the crowd. Never before had campus administrators witnessed such defiance. Students, heady with a sense of power, mobilized. A core group of activists, including Mario Savio, Bettina Aptheker, and Weinberg, worked on strategies to involve nonactivist students. Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, attempted to divide the coalition of students, only further cementing student solidarity. Savio’s rhetoric transformed the issue into one of student freedom and autonomy, to which students across the political spectrum could respond.

Meanwhile, administrators continued to meet in committee to determine the proper punishment for students who had originally violated the ban. They pressed for the suspension of Savio, the magnetic student orator and leader. The administration’s dogged attempt to end and punish campus dissent only egged students on, attracting more to the free speech cause throughout the fall.

On December 2, a group of more than eight hundred students occupied the administration building overnight. When Governor Edmund G. Brown, Sr., dispatched police to arrest students, the movement proclaimed a weeklong strike Strikes . The crackdown worked to undermine administrative authority, pushing faculty to take a stand for the students’ right of free expression. The academic senate met and voted in favor of the students, 824 to 115. The events of December prompted the regents to intervene. On December 18, they enacted new rules that opened the campus to political activity. The students had won their demand for free speech.


The Free Speech movement attracted so many college students because “free speech” echoed American values of liberalism and democracy. Students objected to the hypocrisy they saw on campus and in society as a whole—the clash between reality and American ideals of equality. Protest took some students at Berkeley and nationwide in a radical direction as the decade progressed. With the increased militancy came an identification with the international student movement in Europe. At a protest at Columbia University in 1968, this tendency came to its fullest fruition. The targets and goals of student protest had extended to questions of life in the twentieth century, opposition to the Vietnam War, and the place of the university in the larger community, far exceeding the earlier question of peaceful disobedience in the face of unjust laws.

The Free Speech movement meant the death of the in loco parentis doctrine (the concept that an institution of higher learning should supervise students’ lives in place of their parents) at UC Berkeley, and this principle began to crumble on campuses across the country. Many students chafed against curfews, parietals, and other regulation of their lives, and they demanded autonomy.

Many young people in the United States, and Europe as well, rejected twenty years of postwar liberal consensus. Incorporating the tactics they learned in the Civil Rights movement—the sit-in, passive resistance, mass demonstrations, and strikes—students questioned the status quo and sought to ameliorate social conditions. The protests at UC Berkeley highlighted the issue of bureaucratic impersonality in conflict with individual autonomy that undergirded the later protests of the 1960’s. The rejection of bureaucratic conformity came to full flower in the counterculture. Savio presaged those developments when he proclaimed, “We must construct our own community of protest to take back our self-government.”

The Free Speech movement, the first and most successful student protest of the 1960’s, showed young people that they could fight bureaucracy and gain power to change laws and regulations. By the summer of 1970, students across the country had challenged the internal structure of their universities and sought to connect their campuses to larger social issues. The war in Vietnam and faculty war research imbued these protests with particular immediacy. The massive demonstrations at Yale University on behalf of the Black Panthers, the student deaths at the hands of Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University, and disturbances on such traditionally quiet southern campuses as the University of South Carolina attested to this new force in American life.

The divisions beneath the surface at the beginning of the decade were glaring by the decade’s end. The violence of, and in response to, student protests in the late 1960’s convinced many Americans that the nation was on the verge of crumbling, paving the way for a reassertion of a politics of law and order by the “silent majority.” Nevertheless, campus life in the United States was permanently altered by the activism engendered during the 1960’s. Berkeley Free Speech movement
Free Speech movement, Berkeley
Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests
United States;counterculture
Student protest movement
University of California

Further Reading

  • Breines, Wini. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal. New ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. A history of the New Left, focusing on how ideals of participatory democracy undermined attempts to organize effectively.
  • Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, eds. The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960’s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. A 618-page history of the Berkeley Free Speech movement by those who participated. Includes articles by Savio, Aptheker, Jackie Goldberg, and many others. The introductory essay explores the “many meanings” of the movement. Illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960’s. New York: Hill & Wang, 1994. A synthetic account of the tumultuous decade, outlining the decline of liberalism, student radicalism, and the silent majority’s resurgence.
  • Free Speech Movement Archives. An excellent resource that includes many primary source documents. Also includes photographs, bibliographies, a special section on activist Mario Savio, and much more. Highly recommended.
  • Freeman, Jo. At Berkeley in the Sixties: Education of an Activist, 1961-1965. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004. A personal account of student activism and the beginnings of the Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley and of the Civil Rights movement in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960’s.
  • _______. “The Berkeley Free Speech Movement.” In Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, edited by Immanual Ness. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2004. A briefer version of Freeman’s story of the Free Speech movement in Berkeley.
  • Kitchell Films, in association with P.O.V. Berkeley in the Sixties. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1990. A documentary history of campus protest, from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings to People’s Park in Berkeley. Includes interviews with key participants.
  • Rorabaugh, W. J. Berkeley at War: The 1960’s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A multidimensional history of Berkeley, both town and campus, in the 1960’s.
  • University of California. Academic Senate. Select Committee on Education. Education at Berkeley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. One of the earliest attempts to define the problems facing U.S. higher education in the 1960’s.

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