Once upon a time in Berkeley, California there was a university that tried to forbid groups from setting up tables and sharing their views with members of the campus community. Now, these groups that wanted to distribute literature and engage folks in conversation weren’t just left-wing, right-wing, religious or anti-religious: they were all of these and more. Students who attended the university could not understand why any groups should be forbidden from sharing their beliefs, after all if one can’t express their right to free speech on a university campus in the good ol’ US of A, then where can they engage in such an exercise? The regulation had been on the books for some time apparently, but the university had never seen a reason to enforce it. This changed however, when students started to vigorously practice their free speech.
So the university decided to enforce its regulation by attempting to shut down a table on the campus plaza. It doesn’t matter who that table was representing since all active student organizations on the campus had formed a united front to oppose the enforcement of the regulations, but for historical sake the group was the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)-an organization devoted to legalizing the right to vote for all American citizens and ending discrimination on the basis of race.
The five students at the table refused to close down their booth and were summoned to the Dean’s office. Within minutes of the news of the meeting, several hundred students demanded the right to accompany their classmates to the meeting. Consequently the meeting was cancelled and over five hundred students sat in the administration building. While there, they planned a rally for October 1, 1964. During the rally a former student who was sitting at a table for the civil rights organization CORE was arrested. Within minutes the police car he was sitting in was surrounded by hundreds of students who remained there for several hours, sleeping there overnight. The next afternoon five hundred more police arrived on campus and the number of the demonstrators increased to over 3,000.
Boston Area Colleges Spring of Protest
According to the student daily at Harvard, the Harvard Crimson, Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd, told students planning to protest recruiters from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that they would not be allowed to protest because “They haven’t applied for any space.” Kidd continued in an interview with the Crimson, claiming that “We never allow demonstrations that we don’t have registration for.” Now, whether or not Kidd’s statement is true, one has to wonder what Ms. Kidd would say if the students organizing the demonstration were rallying for the university’s baseball team or even to support the US troops. As it turned out, the administration “bent” its rules and allowed the protestors to gather outside the hall where the recruiters were speaking.
At Emerson College across the Charles River in Boston, students have been rallying on the Boston Commons in support of the faculty union there. The faculty at Emerson have been working without a contract since June as the administration and trustees hold out in the hopes that they can bust the union. Since Emerson is a private college, the faculty has very little protection under US labor law. Despite this, the two sides are in close agreement on salaries but far apart on issues of governance, working conditions and rules. Recently, the union asked that an outside arbitrator be brought in to help resolve the issue. The administration and trustees have refused to do this, claiming that it is an internal problem and outsiders don’t have the knowledge necessary to decide anything. Of course, this is exactly why an arbitrator with no particular agenda is actually the most reasonable step to take at this time. This reasoning makes sense to many of the students as well (not to mention Senators Kennedy and Kerry). Hence, their rallies to support the union.
Free Speech With Permission Only
There is currently a regulation on the books here at UVM (where I work) that demands that any group-whether student or not-get a permit to espouse their philosophy on campus. Why? What is the university afraid of? Communists? Out of control religious zealots? And who made them the arbiter of who should be allowed to have freedom of speech and who should not? These regulations are like those in many towns and cities that forbid rallies and demonstrations by residents unless the groups or individuals involved pay for the police and other services the municipality insists that it must provide. Of course, the protestors usually don’t want the police and consider their presence as part of the police department’s regular duties. In addition, the police presence is something already paid for as part of their taxes. It is time to remove these regulations from the books. To do so may invite ideas we don’t want to hear, but it will also create an environment where we can debate and challenge ideas we disagree with. If we don’t live and study in a democratic environment, how will we know how to make one once we leave this place? If the first amendment isn’t fought for, it will continue to disappear. Remember, Tom Paine didn’t ask the British for a permit to publish Common Sense.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org