Lessons from Our Past: Free Speech on College Campuses
by Alex Parker
Free speech is a classic American principle. In fact, we built an entire nation off of the ability to protest against one’s government. It’s definitely been awhile since the Boston Tea Party, but this ideal is still profoundly relevant today. The First Amendment applies to all American citizens, but free speech plays a particularly significant role in the lives of college students. For those who are privileged enough to attend university, these four years are a time to explore new ideas in an environment that thrives on free expression. The facilitation of diverse opinions prepares us to go out into the workforce, and to introduce fresh perspectives to the rest of society. But despite its frequent romanticization, the freedom of speech is not always upheld, nor is it always interpreted in the same way. Today’s socio-political culture is especially lacking in its tolerance for diverse opinions, with even a whisper of the “other side” causing people to shut down. We have a long way to go and many wounds to heal, but perhaps looking at our nation’s past can inspire us to start the recovery process.
During the Cold War, America was a leading force in the fight against communism. The political administrations of the time demonized it as a fast-spreading plague in need of swift eradication. The perpetuation of this viewpoint by U.S. politicians led to unprecedented amounts of tension amongst the American people. The Vietnam War—and the governmental dishonesty that clouded it—further strained the relationship Americans had with both each other and the politicians who supposedly represented them. In the process, grassroots anti-war movements like the Youth International Party (“Yippies”) and the National Mobilization to End the War (“Mobe”) emerged from the ranks of average citizens.
American college students played a huge role in the anti-war movement and its effect on free speech, prompting a series of ever-polarizing questions: 1) If communists are so dangerous, should college students be allowed to hear from them on campus property? 2) Why should the government attempt to dictate what college students say or listen to? 3) How do we draw the line between the oppression of free speech and the maintenance of national security? History is the stories we tell about ourselves and each other, and although it can be tempting to assume “it’s all in the past,” this could not be further from the truth. The lessons we draw from our nation’s history are crucial in shaping our evaluation of contemporary social issues. If we can understand the mechanisms behind our past actions, we’ll be less likely to repeat our mistakes.
In this article, I will be investigating a recording from my university’s student-run radio station—UC Santa Barbara’s KCSB-FM. This specific audio track is from May 29, 1970. On this day, anti-war activist Jerry Rubin came to speak at a rally on the UCSB campus field. The controversy surrounding his presence on campus goes to show how alienated college students felt from their government during this time. It also demonstrates how the students of UCSB chose to handle the chaos that accompanied the Vietnam War. In conjunction with secondary research, the KCSB audio serves as evidence for a profound period in American history, as well as a testimony to the character of the UC Santa Barbara community.
Jerry Rubin’s Rise to Fame
At the Democratic National Convention in 1968, anti-war groups such as the Youth International Party (Yippies) decided to make an active display against Lyndon B. Johnson’s potential reelection. They devised plans to protest in the streets of Chicago, specifically at the Yippie-organized Festival of Life. Jerry Rubin was a Yippie co-founder and promoted a celebration of love and nature. He called on all the “freaks” to rise up against the “cancer” of the Vietnam War, very much reflecting counterculture hippie trends of the era. Despite these generally patriotic—albeit somewhat radical—connotations, Rubin had other outlandish plans for the Festival of Life. This included encouraging Yippie rebels to sleep with the daughters and wives of the Democratic Convention delegates—a crude method designed to ridicule the political figures they despised so much.
The day of the convention, chaos ensued as the Yippies flooded the Chicago streets. Tensions flared between the curfew-enforcing police officers and the rebellious protestors. In the process, it was found out that seven Yippie members were planning to start a riot and let off bombs in the vicinity. Although the plan never came to light, an undercover police officer discovered their intentions and arrested them for “conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intent to start a riot.” Jerry Rubin was one of the indicted Yippies and the case evoked intense outrage at the national level. Although the charges made against the appropriately dubbed “Chicago seven” were eventually reversed, the case did not fail to make a lasting impression on the American people.
In the following recording, the KCSB radio station provides live coverage of the Jerry Rubin rally at UC Santa Barbara’s campus field. Although the speaking in the audio is clear, there is a lot of background noise in the recording. The sounds of a large crowd—cheering, chatting, bodies moving in close proximity—permeate throughout the recording. The report begins with various KCSB staffers giving background information on Jerry Rubin and the Chicago Seven trial. One staffer in particular, Maxine, gives a run-down of how the rally was organized. She explains that one month earlier, Rubin had been invited to speak on campus by the Associated Student Council. Maxine reports that “the Chancellor at that time denied Rubin the right to appear on April 16.” According to the administration of UCSB and the Board of Supervisors for Santa Barbara, Rubin’s presence had negative “implications for the welfare of campus and Isla Vista.” However, the amount of tension that occurred as a result of this pushed the administration to allow Rubin to speak. In addition, the student council agreed to “assume full responsibility” for the rally, thus causing Chancellor Cheadle to concede to their request.
Jerry Rubin finally makes his appearance at the rally. As he begins to speak, the audio becomes shaky and slightly distorted, as if the microphone was a long distance from the source of the sound. The KCSB reporter then cuts the mic for a few minutes so that they can move closer to the scene for clearer audio. Once Rubin is back on air, live at the UCSB campus field, it becomes apparent why the school was so hesitant to allow him to speak. As Rubin mocks the hypocrisy of “old Richard Nixon” and his administration, the audience cheers loudly and laughs with amusement. Rubin is loud and aggressive with a rough, almost grainy voice. He is also not hesitant to use profanity and by doing this, he aggravates the anticipating crowd. Throughout his speech, his rawness of both tone and the words are apparent. He chose not to utilize the composed and collected voice one usually associates with public speeches. This signified the grass roots nature of his cause, one that is authentically of and by the people. By informalizing the relationship between speaker and audience, Rubin seemed to create a dichotomy between him and the detached political figures of the time. He sought to relate to the crowd on their own level versus as a superior talking down to them.
Rubin then begins to analyze the charges under which he was indicted during the Chicago Seven trial. He ponders at the word “riot,” as he and his fellow defendants were accused of “intention to incite a riot.” Rubin asks his audience what a riot is and mocks the fact that the government had no actual proof of a physical crime when they arrested him.
“We were on trial in Chicago for our dreams. For our thoughts.” -Jerry Rubin
Rubin humorously states that if “they can read [his] mind, [he’d] be going to jail for five thousand years.” He then claims that if the government considers our thoughts to be subject to the law, then “we’re all guilty.” In the background of the audio, a man is heard shouting “right on” in accordance with the enthusiastic crowd’s cheers.
The way the audience continuously responds to Rubin’s provocative words is evidence of the support he had on the UCSB campus in 1970. They seem to laugh at every jab he makes against the government and individuals can be heard shouting their approval throughout the recording. Their eagerness for his words makes it seem like they have been waiting their whole lives for this speech—for someone to finally speak the truth. The mere fact that KCSB chose to cover this event is indicative of the kind of environment UCSB students wanted to promote. As staffer Maxine stated, the associated student council was responsible for any damages that occurred as a result of the rally. By covering the event, KCSB was making a show of support for this decision—despite the controversy surrounding it and the possibility that it could negatively implicate them as well.
As shown, KCSB made a conscious effort to ensure clarity and objectivity in their broadcast. When Rubin began to speak, the staffers moved closer to the scene so that the sound would be less shaky. While the station did provide some context surrounding the event, they mainly focused on recording the rally as it was. They did not attempt to incorporate their own political biases and instead tried to bring the authenticity of the event to their listeners. As the UCSB community fully embraced their constitutional right to protest, KCSB was there to make sure that moment was accessible to everyone.
Not only did KCSB foster an environment based on free speech, but the University Post—UCSB’s student-run newspaper—did as well. In 1962, the paper started a new column called “Other Campus Views,” which featured reprinted articles from other college newspapers. The purpose was to expose UCSB students to the viewpoints of other colleges during that time. The first post in this column was titled “Should Communists Speak on College Campuses?” Although we cannot know for sure, the fact that it was the column’s first post suggests that this issue sparked the creation of the series. The article provides two viewpoints—one pro and one con—on the question of whether communists should be allowed to speak at universities.
The first viewpoint is exemplified by the owner of Freedom Bookstore, W. E. Schmitt, who argues that communists should not have the privilege of speaking on campus. He quotes FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and states that college students “‘are the rich earth which the Communist conspirator hopes to till. [Their] mind is the soil in which he hopes to implant alien seed…’” On the opposing side, Dr. Dwight Bentel argues that communists should be free to speak on college campuses. He claims that “people who are afraid to let college students hear Communists don’t believe in democracy nearly as much as they pretend.”
These two articles were sources that UCSB students could draw on to make their own decisions. The University Post—like KCSB—made a conscious choice to provide the student body with a variety of viewpoints. This is after all what college is meant to do; it is meant to foster an environment of growth and change. When people are more informed, they can make choices for themselves. But how can students be expected to form their own beliefs if only one side is promoted? These primary and secondary sources are evidence of the strength of UC Santa Barbara’s community. The students utilized media to its full advantage and prioritized equal representation of both sides of a politically charged issue.
Not only was the freedom of speech questioned during the Cold War, but it’s still relevant in contemporary politics. In March 2019, President Trump passed an executive order threatening to cut federal research funding to colleges that fail to uphold the freedom of speech on their campuses. The order was largely in response to conservatives at California universities, who argued that professors were guilty of censoring right-wing speech—while simultaneously allowing liberal students to express their opinions. According to political commentator David French, this narrative is unfortunately quite common. Higher education has a reputation for being overwhelmingly liberal, and although this isn’t inherently bad, problems can arise when universities close themselves off to opposing perspectives. UCSB students recognized this in 1968, fighting to make their voices heard even in the midst of intense political unrest. Perhaps instead of constantly trying to silence each other, we should encourage people to find things out for themselves. In order to do that, we need to make every perspective accessible in the first place.
People always say it’s up to the youth of a nation to promote change. Although this is a fairly cliche statement, it is not wrong. We as college students have the means to inspire a more supportive political atmosphere, whether it be through KCSB, the Daily Nexus, or other forums at other universities. We can promote an environment in which people listen to each other—proof that the freedom of speech is not only an opportunity to share your own beliefs, but a chance to hear someone else’s as well. Let’s utilize these opportunities and speak now.
Hall, Simon, and Ronald B. Frankum. “Scholarly Battles over the Vietnam War.” The Historical Journal, vol. 52, no. 3, 2009, pp. 813–829. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40264203. Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.
[Jerry Rubin on Campus Field], KCSB Audiotape Collection. SBHC Mss 58. Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Kreitner, R. (2015, December 03). December 3, 1964: Mass Arrests of Students at the University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/december-3-1964-mass-arrests-of-students-at-university-of-california-berkeley/
Mangan, Katherine. “Trump Says He’ll Sign Order Requiring Colleges to Protect Free Speech.” CHE, CHE, 23 July 2020, http://www.chronicle.com/article/trump-says-hell-sign-order-requiring-colleges-to-protect-free-speech/?bc_nonce=zguebgdnksbj1vesve754.
San Jose State University. “Should Communists Speak on College Campuses.” University Post [Santa Barbara] 6 Feb. 1962: 2.
Schultz, John, and John Schultz. The Conspiracy Trial of the Chicago Seven. University of Chicago Press, 2020.
“Yippie” Jerry Rubin interviewed at WBZ TV Studio, Brighton. (n.d.). Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:2z10wq24h
Alex Parker is a second-year psychology and brain sciences major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has always loved writing and was especially excited to combine this with her passion for social justice. After her undergrad education, she hopes to pursue a law degree and to get more involved in improving America’s education system. In her free time, Alex enjoys hiking, going to coffee shops, and spending time with friends. She is grateful to have worked with Queen City Writers and hopes you enjoy her piece!