I attended a large group discussion of American social advancement of the last several decades; the guest speaker was a young adult, about age 22. She was bemoaning the lack of social progress and was claiming, as fact, that the various rights movements were in poorer condition than they had been before those similar movements of the 1960s. She was implying that the Women’s Rights movement had retreated to an even worse place, as had all of the other people’s rights movements.
An older woman about age 90 spoke up during the response period, and carried on in a similar vein about the unnecessary social disruption, chaos and violence of the 1960s period. Those women consider themselves social activists, they do support the present movements, and they are among the more outspoken of the local supporters of social change. I must leave the specifics of names and organizations out of this, because until they are speaking in a clearly public place it is their right to remain private. These are, and should be considered, private conversations, but their ideas are public.
When my turn came to speak, I admitted that the struggle continues, but to maintain freedom is a continuing struggle. I asserted that the progress toward greater personal freedom during my lifetime had been tremendous. For example, it is inconceivable that I could have hung a rainbow Gay Rights flag on the front of a church in 1955 without a violent response. I had done exactly that less than an hour before. It was impossible for a woman to get a legal abortion, even for a pregnancy created by a rape, at that earlier time. It was almost impossible to purchase contraceptives at that time, condoms were only for disease prevention. And progress is similar with many other social issues now considered natural rights in this country, but not in others. Of course there are still groups of people condemned for their private beliefs, such as non-theists and atheists.
I mentioned the Free Speech Movement (FSM) in Berkeley, of which I was a modest participant, where we were demanding the right to speak publicly in the open plaza in front of the Student Union building. That movement was violently suppressed by the University of California, and many people were arrested. There were thousands of people involved in supporting the right to speak publicly in those campus open areas. There was virtually no violence against the authorities, even though these thousands of students were repeatedly bullied and tear gassed.
One day, I had been in Sproul Hall on business, and was told the building was being evacuated, so I walked out the main door and a minute later was standing thirty yards to the right of Ludwig’s water fountain, seen in the photo below, behind police lines, talking to the captain in charge of the whole event. He was in a gas mask, and yelling at me to get out of there fast. That was a bit strange because it was quiet and there were very few people in the normally busy plaza.
I left immediately and was three-and-a-half blocks away standing at the Mediterraneum Cafe counter getting coffee when that infamous gassing took place, and the photo below was made. It was a clear violation of the Constitutional right of free speech. All that was being requested was the right to speak in public and to hand out flyers on this publicly owned plaza. The media and the Governor made it into a bizarre spectacle.
This is obviously not a riot, and if not, why is a helicopter spraying tear gas on the students? Notice the coed walking with a purse, another standing with her dog, and Ludwig the hound standing in his water fountain. Those running are clearly running from the obviously questionable intent of the helicopter. It was either on fire and crashing or spraying them like noxious insects. It was the latter.
Sometimes it takes some level of commitment to enforce one’s legal rights, and eventually the University did acknowledge the right of Free Speech, and now there are often card tables in that plaza with kids from all over the world behind them handing out literature. That freedom would still be condemned in their homelands, but they can now do it here. Freedom of speech isn’t free! But we have some rights now because of the absurdity of this event, and progress is still being made. There will always be social issues to be contested, but without free speech they cannot be improved or resolved.
Without free speech there is not even the possibility of those other rights.