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Professor recalls pros, cons of Free Speech Movement

Snapshot of history

By Meriah Doty

Philosophy professor John Searle stands in his office in Moses Hall.

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Mario Savio
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start quoteYou will not understand the '60s and you will not understand the Free Speech Movement if you do not understand the role of the Civil Rights Movement.end quote
-- John Searle, U.C. Berkeley professor

BERKELEY, California (CNN) -- The Free Speech Movement that began in Berkeley in 1964 is credited with inspiring the vast number of anti-Vietnam war protests in the '60s.

One person who was at the center of the Free Speech Movement is still a professor at the University of California at Berkeley -- where the movement got its start.

Philosophy professor John Searle was the first tenured professor to join the movement. He spoke to about his involvement as well as how the FSM gained motivation.

CNN: Why did you initially get involved in the Free Speech Movement and why is it still important today?

SEARLE: I am not by nature a very left-wing person. I believe very strongly in civil liberties, particularly in free speech, that's why I got involved.

In particular, my own free speech was denied. There was a movie called "Operation Abolition" which was put out by the House Committee of Un-American Activities. It was a really stupid movie. I knew something about these issues because I'd been to demonstrations against that and I had been secretary of Students against McCarthy when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin. So I had been active in essentially civil liberties issues.

I spoke out strongly against this movie. They were going to show it to a law school class and I was invited to comment on it, to the law school class. The chancellor's office called and said they denied my speaking. Now this was an outrage. They denied a professor of this university from addressing students of this university in a class when invited by another professor at the university. I was furious.

I did go to the academic senate committees and it was obvious all they wanted to do was cover it up. ... In those days bad publicity was regarded as the worst thing that could happen.

I was furious. I decided [at the time] "I'm an assistant professor with a wife and two small children and they can fire me any day they want; so I'll just wait. My day will come."

And it did. One day I found I had this wonderful weapon in my hand the Free Speech Movement. ... That's how I got involved with the Free Speech Movement.

When the kids came to me and said "they're denying free speech," they did not have to convince me. I had lived through it and I believed them.

The problem is -- we destroyed the whole structure of authority on campus and that created a mess. It created all these revolutionary expectations. People thought the world revolution was going to start in Berkeley and we're going to have a completely different kind of campus and all this sort of nonsense.

When the new chancellor came in basically he said to me "You made this mess; now you've got to clean it up. Put up or shut up." I said, "OK, I will." And I went in and I worked in the chancellor's office for two years.

That was much more stressful than the FSM because I had to put the genie back in the bottle. We did. By '67 when I left the chancellor's office to go on a sabbatical, I think we had created the mechanisms whereby we could have an academic university.

People wanted a political university. They wanted it to be a left-wing university and I was determined not to let that happen. And in that respect I succeeded. It was worth all those two years of agony [to] try to control the student movement.

When '68 came, every place blew up except Berkeley. [In] Berkeley we had things under control by 1968. '68 was a worldwide massive student upheaval -- not in Berkeley. Now in '69 things blew up again over the People's Park. But that in a way was not a campus problem. That was a city problem.

CNN: What was your relationship to Mario Savio [student leader of the FSM]?

SEARLE: It was rather funny. I had this course in the philosophy of language and there was a kid in the front row who seemed pretty smart. And there was a teaching assistant in my other course who was also sitting in on the philosophy of language -- Suzanne.

She said, "Can you see what's going on out on the plaza." Suzanne and I went around and looked and there were these people sitting around a police car on the plaza. My initial reaction was I thought it was hilarious. I thought it was very funny because they took their shoes and socks off and climbed up and made a speech.

And the kid in the front row was Mario Savio and the teaching assistant was Suzanne Goldberg. (Editor's note: Goldberg was also prominent in the movement. The speech Savio made from the police car is considered by many to be its start.)

I was very close to them during the Free Speech Movement. She was my teaching assistant and he was one of my best students. And of course we were then cooperating in this conflict as it developed. However we didn't stay close after that.

... I think Mario's career was a tragic loss because I think he was very smart and he could have gone on to do very important things. But at the age of 21 he got defined as a left-wing icon. I think it was very bad for him.

CNN: Today, where are elements of the FSM or the issue of free speech?

SEARLE: We established the right to free speech. That was done. That was an achievement of the FSM.

... In some respect the Free Speech Movement did not produce free speech. There was a kind of orthodoxy that developed in the '60s. You couldn't invite someone to the campus to support the war in Vietnam or to argue against abortion rights or affirmative action -- whatever the favorite sacred topic is.

There was a period where there wasn't free speech. There was only free speech for certain approved views and speakers who didn't hold the approved views would have been disrupted or shouted down or otherwise would have created a riot.

I hope that's over now. I hope we genuinely do have free speech. The idea of the Free Speech Movement [is] that every view is permissible. If you don't believe in free speech for Adolf Hitler you don't believe in free speech.

That was not the view that came out of the FSM in the late '60s. But I think in the long run that view came to prevail. I think we do have free speech on campus.

What they did to me they couldn't do to an assistant professor today. Nobody would dare.

CNN: Why does Berkeley have such liberal reputation?

SEARLE: There is a tradition that goes back before the Free Speech Movement before the second World War. Berkeley had a liberal element in the student body who tended to be quite active. I think that's in general a feature of intellectually active places. ... Intellectuals in America tend to be more liberal than the population at large. And the better the university, the more likely you are to see that.

CNN: How different is the mood on campus politically now from what it was in the '60s?

SEARLE: Dramatically different. You will not understand the '60s and you will not understand the Free Speech Movement if you do not understand the role of the Civil Rights Movement.

The FSM was a kind of extension of the Civil Rights Movement. The same strategies, the same techniques of going limp and engaging a nonviolent confrontation where you don't actually assault the police but you prevent them from carrying on their normal duties by blocking doorways and sitting in and so on.

CNN: There are a lot of non-students who seem to keep that tradition alive.

SEARLE: Well, the city of Berkeley is more left-wing than the university. This is an amazing discovery because by tradition universities are always left of their surrounding communities. But not in Berkeley. I would say that Berkeley became a left-wing community as a result of the '60s. The university is about the same as it was before politically. But the city is much more to the left than it was prior to all of this.

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