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Free Speech and Campus Protest

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Broadcasting's most influential journalist, Edward R. Murrow, who graduated from Washington State University in 1930, here delivering speech on campus in 1942.

Mario Savio speaking out during the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, c. 1964.

Since the colonial era , American college students have embraced a tradition of debate on lively, timely social and political topics. By 1900, these public forums raised issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Campus officials often reprimanded the student speakers. At some state universities, including the University of California, attempts by university boards and presidents to censor student journalism or to curtail free speech have led to tense encounters with vocal, literate and concerned students. Nevertheless, these activists at that time persisted and prevailed in their rights of assembly and public discussion. Student political participation expanded dramatically in the 20th century. Peace organizations appeared on some campuses during World War I. Other political organizations followed in the 1920s, including Liberal Clubs and Democratic and Republican clubs. During the Great Depression, Communist and socialist students at the City College of New York gathered in separate alcoves of the college cafeteria to debate politics. Some members were later blacklisted when their membership in radical political associations became known after World War II.

Campus activism receded during the 1950s, but the 1960s led to a new involvement in politics. One of the most notable was the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s at the University of California, Berkeley. This movement, an outgrowth of student civil rights activism, spread nationwide. As the tumult of the 1960s increased, students and the nation at large became polarized over the Vietnam War. Both the anti-war and civil rights movements grew in size and militancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Universities and law enforcement often reacted by cracking down on students. In May 1970, two incidents led to the deaths of students. At Kent State University, the National Guard gunned down four students; later that month, state police killed two students at Jackson State University in Mississippi.

Black students at the University of Maryland protest against the Vietnam War, c. 1970.

The 1960s and 70s changed the nature of the university, ending many of the earlier restrictions on free speech. Activism on campuses has continued up to the present from the women’s movement of the 1970s, the anti-apartheid demonstrations of the 1980s to movements grew in size and militancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Universities and law enforcement often reacted by cracking down on students. In May 1970, two incidents led to the deaths of students. At Kent State University, the National Guard gunned down four students; later that month, state police killed two students at Jackson State University in Mississippi.

The 1960s and 70s changed the nature of the university, ending many of the earlier restrictions on free speech. Activism on campuses has continued up to the present from the women's movement of the 1970s, the anti-apartheid demonstrations of the 1980s to move movements to end genocide in Darfur today.

Black and Puerto Rican students at the City College of New York marching after a meeting with administration and faculty members demanding open admissions at The City University of New York, 1969.
Pro-choice rally at the University of Wisconsin, 1989.
Students at the City College of New York protest against anti-semitism, 1950s.