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Mario Savio Drew Ire of University Administrators Over Free Speech to the End, NYU's Cohen Recounts in New Biography

September 8, 2009
N-9, 2009-10

Mario Savio’s three-decade life as an activist ended in much the way it began-aggravating a university administration in his advocacy of free speech. Savio, one of the leaders of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement who drew the ire of University of California administrators in the mid-1960s, was in the midst of battle with Sonoma State University over a proposed fee hike when he died in November of 1996, going into a deep coma after suffering heart fibrillation.

“The administration felt that Savio had gone ‘gone too far’ and left the campus leadership ‘really terminally annoyed,’ ” Donald Farish, the Sonoma State provost at the time, recounts in the first biography of the civil rights leader, authored by New York University Professor Robert Cohen. The work, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, is published by Oxford University Press (Sept. 24).

Cohen recounts Savio’s efforts to halt a proposed $300 fee hike on Sonoma State students in the book final chapter, “Dying in the Saddle.”

Savio saw the fee increase as “regressive; sneaking in tuition under another name, it made the university too expensive for low-income students,” Cohen writes. “This ‘differential fee,’ proposed by President Ruben Armiñana, would have to be approved by a referendum before it could be implemented. To Savio, the process by which the administration promoted the fee proposal seemed unethical: the administration used its influence to discourage opposition and its resources to flood the campus with pro-fee-hike propaganda while failing to provide equal access to the fee’s critics. He saw this as a free speech issue, since one side’s views were privileged over the other’s without a fair hearing, making a mockery of the democratic process.”

Savio became the voice and symbol of the Free Speech Movement 45 years ago this October 1 when, at age 21, he climbed on top of a police car-in socks in order to prevent marring the vehicle-to protest the arrest of a demonstrator on the Berkeley campus. Students had been resisting the university’s attempts to ban political advocacy on campus. With this and subsequent efforts, Savio did more than anyone to make Berkeley a center of student activism in the 1960s, setting the stage for nation-wide campus protests of the Vietnam War.

In Freedom’s Orator, Cohen recounts the impact 1964’s Freedom Summer-efforts of college students to register African-Americans to vote-had on Savio and others. But the work sharpens the historical record by including previously private correspondence between Savio and his friend Cheryl Stevenson while Savio was in Mississippi.

Savio, like many deep South civil rights activists, was upset that the FBI refused to protect civil rights workers from the Ku Klux Klan and in his own case after he and fellow civil rights workers were assaulted in Jackson by club-wielding Klansmen. Moreover, he was incensed that the FBI agents refused to put in their report the hostile, racist behavior of the Jackson police who responded indifferently to the assault. In one letter, Cohen writes, Savio concludes that the FBI was “on the wrong side of the battle for social justice.”

“The FBI establishes a new office in Jackson and then releases its figures … ‘proving’ that Mississippi has the lowest crime rate of any state,” Savio wrote in one letter to Stevenson. “Murder of Negroes isn’t a crime here. And what about crimes committed by the law itself [?]”

Cohen, who obtained a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley in 1987, is the chair of Department of Teaching and Learning in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Cohen’s previous works include When the Old Left Was Young, Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression, and The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, a co-edited volume.

Reporters wishing to speak with Cohen should contact James Devitt, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
Research, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development

Type: Press Release


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