The Free Speech Movement was launched in Berkeley, California, on this date in 1964 . It was the first mass civil disobedience protest held on a college campus during the 1960s. The University of California at Berkeley had a policy against allowing political activity or fundraising on campus, with the exception of the established Democrat and Republican student clubs. Jack Weinberg was one of several graduate students who had been to the South to join the civil rights movement. They came back to UC Berkeley to spread the word about the movement, and they set up an information table on the steps of Sproul Hall to mobilize their fellow students. University officials asked Weinberg to stop, and he refused. They called the police, who put him in the back of a squad car when he declined to show them his identification. Students quickly surrounded the police car and staged a sit-in, keeping the car from driving off. Weinberg’s fellow student activist, Mario Savio, climbed on the police car and used it as an impromptu podium. Weinberg ended up being held in the squad car for 32 hours. A journalist interviewed him and tried to get him to admit that the students were the puppets of older agitators; Weinberg denied it, and famously said that the movement’s members didn’t trust anyone over 30.
Some of the original protestors now say that they think the movement went too far, but 50 years after the original protest, Weinberg defended it. “Democracy’s messy,” he said. “When people have the right to express themselves and organize for whatever they are, you’re always going to find some things that you find objectionable … But I think that American society is much better off today than it was in the ’50s when there was very little freedom of any kind. Unless you were dressed the right way and spoke the right way and thought the right way, you were marginalized.”