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Mario Savio Biographer at UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement Café, 45 Years After FSM Blossomed on Cal Campus, for Panel Discussion Oct. 28

October 22, 2009
N-103, 2009-10

New York University historian Robert Cohen, author of the newly released biography of the late Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio, Freedom’s Orator (Oxford), will be among the panelists for a discussion on the movement on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 5-7 p.m. at the Free Speech Movement Café, located in the University of California, Berkeley’s Moffitt Library.

The event, which will also include Savio’s widow, Lynne Hollander Savio, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning UC Berkeley professor emeritus of history Leon Litwack, is bookended by the 45th anniversaries of two events that launched the Free Speech Movement, making UC Berkeley a cornerstone of 1960s activism.

On Oct. 1, 1964, on UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, Savio 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.

On Dec. 2, 1964, Savio and others organized a Sproul Plaza demonstration against university administration policies on speech. The event drew 6,000 students, resulted in mass arrests, and was highlighted by Savio’s iconic seven-minute address against the university “machine” that had become so “odious.” It may be viewed on YouTube.

With these efforts, Savio did more than anyone to make UC Berkeley a center of student activism in the 1960s, setting the stage for nationwide campus protests of the Vietnam War.

Cohen, who obtained a doctorate in history from UC 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.

Litwack, another of the event’s panelists, was a faculty member at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964-his first semester on the campus. In the campus strike that followed the Dec. 2 arrests, Litwack released his U.S. history class, declaring it “inappropriate to study, if not to celebrate, the rebels of the past while we seek to silence the rebels of the present.”

Cohen’s biography-the first on Savio-makes clear that Savio’s work as an activist had resonance beyond the Free Speech Movement. The work shows that his three-decade life ended in much the way it began-aggravating a university administration in his advocacy of free speech. Savio 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 Cohen’s biography.

Cohen recounts Savio’s efforts to halt a proposed $300 fee hike on Sonoma State students in the book’s 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.”

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

Type: Press Release

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