Considering History: College Campuses, Protests, and the Best and Worst of America

Looking to the past reminds us that our campuses have always been intertwined with issues of protest and free speech.

Pro-Palestinian supporters set up a protest encampment on the campus of Columbia University in New York as seen on April 22, 2024 (Shutterstock)

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.

As colleges near the end of this academic year — a time that should be marked by celebratory moments like commencements and graduations — campuses are experiencing a level of turmoil we haven’t seen in more than half a century. Student protests and encampments in opposition to Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, in response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas in Israel, have descended into violent confrontations with riot police, with counter-protesters, and with markedly distinct off-campus protests. Arrests, expulsions, campus closures, and canceled commencements have become the story at colleges across the country, from Columbia to UCLA, Wisconsin to Ole Miss, the University of Virginia in my troubled hometown of Charlottesville, and many more.

This moment of excess and extremes is unquestionably shocking, echoing other tragic events like the Kent State shooting, which took place this week 54 years ago. Yet the truth is that even in quieter times and at institutions that might seem far removed from such crises, college campuses are never separate from the broader American story of which they are an integral part. Two controversies on the campus of my own regional public university, Fitchburg State University in North Central Massachusetts, illustrate how every educational institution both affects and is affected by the worst and best of American histories.

I owe my knowledge of the first controversy I’ll highlight to the impressive work of a graduating FSU English studies major, Brady Elliott. Working as an intern in the Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio Library’s archives, Brady uncovered evidence of significant early 1970s conflicts between Fitchburg State College (as it was then named) undergraduate student organizations and the college’s combative President James J. Hammond. Hammond served as FSC’s 7th president during the turbulent era of 1960s and early 1970s social unrest, taking office in 1962 and retiring in 1975. He was an ardent traditionalist, not only in his general views of societal structures and order, but also in his sense that a college president’s authority was absolute and not to be questioned. As Brady puts it, Hammond was “well known for his strong and often overbearing paternal leadership style.”

In the spring of 1971, that leadership style came into direct conflict with the Student Government Association and its newly elected president, Mark Rice. Rice had learned from both past SGA leaders and other students about a number of serious complaints, including those related to Hammond’s efforts to limit the SGA’s power. They also had more overarching concerns about campus culture, such as Hammond’s requirement that all students living on-campus sign a contract and pay a fee beyond their regular room and board charges, and his refusal to authorize an SGA committee to address on-campus pregnancy counseling, among other complaints. In July 1971 Rice and other SGA leaders collected these complaints into a petition, “Evidences of Oppression on the Fitchburg State Campus,” and sent it to the College’s Board of Trustees. While the Board did not take action and Hammond remained in office, the petition (which is held in the FSU Archives) and other ongoing SGA efforts did help produce a more democratic campus culture, one in which both the SGA and the students more generally had a more significant role in decision-making and policies.

If those moments of 1970s student resistance gradually changed Fitchburg State’s campus culture and community, another controversy from a few years earlier more overtly influenced not just the college but also federal law and American society. In the summer of 1969 John Antonelli, Jay Sampson, and the aforementioned Mark Rice, a trio of FSC undergraduates and the co-editors of the new student newspaper The Cycle, attended the Woodstock music festival, part of an intense summer in which their eyes were opened to much of what was unfolding around the country and world in this counter-cultural moment. They returned to the campus and the newspaper ready to bring those issues to their fellow students and the FSC community.

The Fitchburg State University campus, ca. 1940-1949 (Copyright Fitchburg State University, Digital CommonwealthCreative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License)

The newspaper and President Hammond began clashing almost immediately that fall semester, but it was when the editors sought to reprint Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver’s incendiary article “Black Moochie” in The Cycle’s third issue of the year that the tensions came to a boil. The first objection was raised by Raymond Plante, a local businessman whose printing business produced the newspaper (and whose daughter was also an FSC student). Plante threatened to destroy his own press rather than print the issue and brought his objections to President Hammond, who called the article “garbage” and told the students that they would lose all funding for the newspaper if they tried to print the issue with Cleaver’s article included. The students took the issue to Salem State College instead, which printed it in full; as a result, Hammond demanded that all subsequent issues of The Cycle be submitted to an advisory board before publication.

Eldridge Cleaver (Wikimedia Commons)

Antonelli, Sampson, and Rice were not deterred — they resigned from the paper en masse, and then sued Hammond and FSC, arguing that their First Amendment rights had been violated. Antonelli v. Hammond made its way to a U.S. District Court in Boston, where Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ruled in favor of the students. “Because of potentially great social value of a free student voice in an age of student awareness and unrest,” Garrity wrote in his decision, “it would be inconsistent with the basic assumptions of First Amendment freedoms to permit a campus newspaper to be simply a vehicle for ideas the state and college administration deems appropriate.” The ruling was hugely significant not only for campus newspapers around the country, but also for broader understandings of free speech in that time of protest and change and ever since.

Judge Arthur Garrity (U.S District Court for the District of Massachusetts)

We find ourselves in another time of protest and change, of university administrations clashing with students over speech and activism, of debates over what campuses can and should (or cannot and should not) be and include. Looking to the past, of individual institutions like Fitchburg State and of the United States overall, reminds us that our campuses have always been intertwined with both the worst and the best of our broader histories. And for me, looking to my students — and to all the young people working to add their voices to our conversations — helps me keep hope that my community and all of ours will find our way to a more inclusive and inspiring future still.

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  1. Students caught protesting in a disorderly fashion of any sorts should immediately be expelled from the University and have their scholarships revoked. You send your kids off for an education and not to be protesting events outside their scope of studies. And Biden wants the “reward” these “hoodlums” with “Student Loan Forgiveness?” I don’t think so! Get their @$$e$ out of the protest lines and tents and back into the classrooms where they were intended to be in the first place. Furthermore, any self-proclaimed “professor” who participates in such protests or encourages students to do so, should be fired immediately. No questions asked. It’s disgusting what’s going on at these college campuses and does not present a favourable image of the universities which are allowing such behaviour to go unpunished.

  2. Dear Ben, I found little relevance of Fitchburg State events and those events happening on college campuses of late. Overlooked was the international focus of our current events when compared to Clever writings. The question remains can civil order be kept even during protests. Breaking the law will never help the cause at hand….only hinder it.


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