The 1960’s free speech movement, while nationwide, truly exploded on the University of California, Berkeley's Campus. In essence, the students of Berkeley wanted the university administration to lift the campus ban prohibiting political activities on campus. Students at this time claimed that the ban limited their freedom of speech and academic freedom.
The fight for free speech, Berkeley and elsewhere, is also characterized by a hotbed of student activism that reared it’s head during the 60’s. Students were protesting everything from the Vietnam War, to Civil Rights, to lowering the voting age to 18. Protests shut down campuses, and called national media attention from all corners of the country. Students went to incredible lengths to have their voices heard. So much so that students at Berkeley actually chained the Chancellor's doors together in a protest over Vietnam War policy. The chancellor had to use steam tunnels to escape the building (rumor has it that the doors have only one external handle these days).
During this time, students became a beacon and a force that gave many social movements the push they needed to thrive and achieve. For example, the black college students that lead the lunch counter sit ins during the 1960’s. They were fighting back against nationalist ideals, and doing a damn good job.
Let’s fast forward to 2017. Seemingly, the same debate is taking place - and yet again, Berkeley finds itself as a hotspot. But this time it’s different. Earlier this year, Berkeley actually had to cancel an event featuring Milo Yiannopoulos because of violence on campus condemning his speech. While it was confirmed that the violent acts were mainly perpetrated by Berkeley outsiders, the protests before the speech and the requests from students to deny Milo the chance to speak on campus seem at odds with Berkeley's long history.
Now Berkeley is one piece of the larger free speech debate taking place within the U.S. Just last month Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at Georgetown Law School condemning the counter-protests of conservative campus speakers. Sessions noted that speech is necessary to grow minds, create virtuous citizens, and to foster debate. He condemned groupthink, and university officials that “coddle” students.
You may be nodding your head in agreement. Who wants un-virtuous young people running society? Not me. So I found myself nodding along too, which is not something I often do with Jeff Sessions (just being honest). But then I found myself confused and slightly baffled. Something in my gut told me things weren’t adding up. Because Sessions himself, a known conservative, could have easily stood on the opposite side of this debate with his buddy President Ronald Reagan nearly 50 years ago.
President Ronald Reagan, one of the most revered conservative politicians of all time, chastised the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and threatened to, “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” during his stint as governor. More notably, he targeted campus anti-war activists during the People's Park Riots of 1969, and when went so far as to send in the National Guard to break up the protests. 128 protesters were admitted to local hospitals, and 1 protester died as a result.
One of the largest differences between the 1960’s free speech movement, and that of today, is the stance of conservatives. In the 60’s, conservatives were all-in on university administrators regulating speech, and punishing students who caused any sort of ruckus on campus. But now, it appears that the modern free speech movement is one of the staples of the current conservative movement.
Why the change? Why the shift? One possibility is to reach out to a younger generation with conservative ideals, one that seemingly came out of the woods in this last election. Another reason? Perhaps to promote nationalism.
You see, I actually believe the current free speech movement isn’t all that different from the one that took place in the 1960’s. Hear me out for a sec.
The regulations Republican lawmakers tried to enforce in the 1960’s were to silence speech that went against nationalist efforts. While free-speech and anti-war efforts are two different topics, they were intrinsically linked at that time. Students couldn’t protest the war, or lack of civil rights, without gaining free speech on campus first. Thus, speech needed to be ‘limited’ at that time to protect nationalist sentiments that promoted the “American” way - rooted in white supremacy, and patriarchal ideals.
In essence, free speech was used as a tool in the 60’s, and is being used as a tool today.
The majority of concerning speakers coming to campuses tend to lean far right. These speakers condemn movements like Black Lives Matter, labeling them hate groups. They state that women shouldn’t have the right to vote. These conservative pundits want young people to believe that groups that fight for equity of others, that fight for marginalized groups and causes, are using fake/twisted facts. These people are being “un-American,” they are being “ungrateful.”
So modern conservatives are turning to the free speech movement as a way to advocate for their nationalist ideals. They are taking a movement closely associated with the far-left, and using it as an argument against current protests and calls to not allow these conservative speakers on campus. They are now the ones using it as a tool.
I argue that the free speech movement today isn’t actually entirely that different than 50 years ago. The right-leaning proponents are espousing nearly the same ideals of nationalism. And student activists, they’re doing nearly the same thing they did before. They are battling the same battles, fighting the same issues - women’s liberation, post Jim-Crow racism, seemingly oppressive universities and government. They are rising up in the pursuit of politicians and politics that preach nationalism and conformity.
The only thing that’s shifted in this debate is who gets ownership over the free-speech movement, the ultimate trump card if you will.
Because really it’s not about the movement, or the commitment to the First Amendment. In this case, free speech is being used as a proxy. It’s cloaked as an all-American ideal. An undeniable right. Something that should never taken. But really, it’s being used as a tool of political manipulation.
It worked damn well in the 60’s. And frankly, it’s unsurprising how well it’s working today.