On-Campus Protests: Free Speech, Discrimination, History, and Power

Tyler Holmes
College campuses have long been at the center of political and social debates in the United States and around the world.

College campuses have long been at the center of political and social debates in the United States and around the world.

ScenaStudio via Shutterstock

All right. Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.

Former University of Missouri assistant professor Melissa Click shortly after UM System President Tim Wolfe resigned during campus protests in 2015.

As Ben Trachtenberg notes in his forthcoming Kentucky Law Journal article, “The 2015 University of Missouri Protests and their Lessons for Higher Education Policy and Administration,” the most viral moment of those Mizzou protests came after the efforts had achieved the resignation of the university system president and campus chancellor. Yet, the video was and is used as an example of the excesses of modern student protest (and academics). (Download the paper for free from the Social Sciences Research Network Electronic Paper Collection.)

Perhaps this is an unsurprising dichotomy given the state of American politics. Viral moments and short memories combined with a near-universal disdain for protest make the news read as if intolerance on campus is at an all-time high, while there appears to be progress for speech and against systemic discrimination.

A Brief History

College campuses have long been at the center of political and social debates in the United States and around the world (including, but not limited to: civil rights, peace, anti-apartheid, racial representation, environmentalism, LGBT rights). After all, the university—at least in part—is supposed to provide students with a place to access knowledge, engage with others’ perspectives and experiences, and develop and advocate their own philosophies.

Harvard student protests of bad food in 1638 and bad butter in 1766 might be the earliest examples of collective student action in what would become the United States, but history seems to best remember the student movements that came after the massive influx of students into post-secondary education after World War II. First came student sit-ins in the South and the accompanying formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which, by way of civil rights demonstrations in and around the Bay Area, spread to Berkeley.

Will we allow a great university to be brought to its knees by a noisy dissident minority? Will we meet their neurotic vulgarities with vacillation and weakness?

Then California gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan in 1966

The Free Speech Movement

By the late 1950s/early 1960s, students at the University of California were banned from engaging in off-campus politics anywhere on campus. At Berkeley, students had adapted to use an area at the campus edge to engage students for civil rights demonstrations and later the Republican National Convention in 1963 and 1964. In response to reports that student engagement in the region was a result of tabling in the unbanned area, the University shut down all activity. Student groups protested by continuing to set up their tables as before and in front of the administration building in Sproul Plaza to advocate and fundraise for various causes. The administration then suspended eight students on September 30, 1964.

When students set their tables again on October 1, campus police arrested an alumnus, Jack Weinberg. The police brought a car to Sproul Plaza and put Weinberg in the car. But students responded by surrounding the car, turning the arrest into a 32-hour rally on and around the vehicle. Over the course of the next few months, a student group called the Free Speech Movement (FSM) led negotiations with the administration and additional advocacy, including a roughly 800-person occupation of the administration building in December 1964. Students won the ability to advocate for all political activities on the steps of Sproul Plaza, which were later named for one of FSM’s student leaders, Mario Savio, after his death. (Jo Freeman, “The Berkeley Free Speech Movement,” Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, edited by Immanual Ness, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004, pp. 1178–1182).

I thought it was hideously hypocritical that so many of these radical leaders were from families far wealthier than my family, and they were supposedly helping the oppressed by denying working-class kids like me an education.

Former Governor of New York George Pataki, then a Columbia law student and member of the Majority Coalition

Columbia, 1968

On April 23, 1968, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) at Columbia University agreed to speak at the same demonstration. SDS’s main grievance was about the treatment of six students who were disciplined for protest against Columbia’s affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a weapons research think tank tied to the Pentagon. The SAS, on the other hand, was protesting a “community” gym Columbia was building in Morningside Park, which the University had promised would be mixed-use, but was much more lopsided and featured a design that would have students enter from above and community members below (the construction was on a slope).

After the demonstration, the group of several hundred students meandered between three different sit-in sites, finally settling on Hamilton Hall. But in the night, the SAS students requested that the SDS group move elsewhere to keep the protests separate, as the SDS’ freewheeling style disturbed the SAS. The occupations, which covered administration and library buildings, came to a violent end after a week, with NYPD violently arresting protesters and counter-protesters alike. But Columbia did disassociate from IDA and scrapped the new gym. (Clara Bingham, “‘The Whole World Is Watching’: An Oral History of the 1968 Columbia Uprising,” Vanity Fair, Apr. 2018.)

Back to the Future

At the University of Missouri in 2015, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and the rise and attention of Black Lives Matter, African American students responded to incidents of racism with activism, protesting on campus and in front of the president’s car during the homecoming parade. Protesters demanded acknowledgment and action from the administration, who waited 16 days to meet with students and performed poorly in such meetings. In the meantime, protests escalated to include camping on the quad, a grad student’s hunger strike, and the football team’s refusal to play. The only violence was Melissa Click’s grabbing of a student videographer’s camera during her viral moment.

And yet, if you are reading this, you probably have clicked on a piece in the last few years such as the one published by Voice of America on April 26, 2017. The headline? “American College Campuses Increasingly Hostile to Free Speech.” In response to a public perception of college kids unable to handle points of view students don’t like, Republican state lawmakers have passed or contemplated bills going so far as to force universities to punish students who were deemed to have interfered with the free expression of others. (Neal H. Hutchens, “New legislation may make free speech on campus less free,” (June 27, 2017).

In fairness, there have been violent incidents, including an injury to a professor who merely facilitated a talk at Vermont’s Middlebury College. Few universities, such as Cal Berkeley, have responded to student protests against invited speakers with cancelations, however, and, as Evan Gerstmann notes in his article “Protests, Free Expression, and College Campuses,” speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, who has tactically outed a transgender student in the past, may deserve to have invitations rescinded. (Social Education 82(1), 6–9.)

But instead of an intolerant campus run amok, as has been claimed for at least the last century of university protests (see quotes of Reagan and Pataki above), modern protest movements seem more like their forebears, trying to move the campus forward. The tactics are unlikely to be clean or even necessarily legal (though hopefully nonviolent), but they can bring attention to historic and systemic wrongs that deserve our attention.

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Tyler Holmes

Tyler Holmes is a programme lawyer with Irish Rule of Law International’s Access to Justice Programme in Malawi.