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Inside Politics

Examining Berkeley's liberal legacy

By Meriah Doty

UC Berkeley
University of California at Berkeley is across the bay from San Francisco.

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Editor's note: As part of our coverage of the 2004 election season, is sending correspondents to the colleges where they studied to report on issues affecting today's young voters. In this edition, Meriah Doty returns to her alma mater, University of California at Berkeley.

BERKELEY, California (CNN) -- It's been almost 40 years since the Free Speech Movement shook the University of California at Berkeley in 1964 and reverberated across the nation, establishing Berkeley as the ground zero of the anti-war movement.

But recently, most students there had final exams and winter break on their minds and not radical causes.

The Free Speech Movement was started by students angry they were not allowed to use campus facilities for their anti-war and other campaigns. It inspired campuses across the nation to follow suit with large, organized student protests and solidified Berkeley's reputation for liberal politics and radical left-wing ideals.

Forty years on, although most students agree the school has a liberal environment, its reputation as a hotbed of radicalism seems a little out-of-date.

"I think it's definitely more conservative than it has been in the past," graduate student Lih-Chuin Loh said when asked if Berkeley had changed. "If it is liberal, it's hard to tell because the demonstrations [here] are pretty weak, to be honest."

"When you have 250 students protesting in a school that has 50,000 students it's ... not that big of a deal," he added.

"In general. I feel it is a liberal place, but it's not living up to the reputation of the crazy times in the '60s," Celia Bein, a political science major and sophomore, said.

And Michael Eggars believes the campus is, indeed, liberal. "I'm a Republican. [That is] hard to say on this campus . ... I supported Bush in the last election. I'll probably be supporting him again." However, Eggars said, "the city [of Berkeley] is more liberal than the students."

Philosophy professor John Searle, who in 1964 became the first tenured professor to join the Free Speech Movement, said that Berkeley is not too different from any other American university. [Read more on how professor Searle was involved with the FSM]

"Berkeley had a liberal element in the student body who tended to be quite active. I think that's in general a feature of intellectually active places," Searle said.

And there is a distinction to be made between Berkeley the city and U.C. Berkeley, the university.

"Berkeley became a left-wing community as a result of the '60s. The university is about the same as it was before politically. But the city is much more to the left than it was prior to all of this," Searle said.

Searle also said that, unlike now, disruptive students protests were a part of daily life on Berkeley's campus in the 1960s.

One era to another

Cognitive science major Owen Laine, a junior at Cal, is living proof of a contrast between student life in the Vietnam generation and today.

"Both my parents went here. I think they graduated in '71, '72; so they were both part of that whole movement. ... To be honest I'm not particularly politically active," he said.

Laine, who said he voted for Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, added, "I don't think it would be fair to say that at large the campus is still as politically active as it used to be."

Eric Schewe, editor-in-chief of The Daily Californian, talks about Berkeley's reputation.

Eric Schewe, editor-in-chief of U.C. Berkeley's student newspaper, The Daily Californian, discussed the validity of Cal's reputation for left-wing political thought.

"Since the '60s the image has kind of echoed and echoed. But the reality has changed a bit. We have an -- if not high profile, well-funded from unknown sources -- conservative campus group called the Berkeley College of Republicans," Schewe said.

When protests are held, they are still staged in front of the campus' administration building Sproul Hall to this day -- the very place where Free Speech Movement student leader Mario Savio stood on a police car in December of 1964 and gave a famous speech before leading a sit-in inside the building.

"The Free Speech Movement and everything that happened here in the '60s was a big reason I wanted to come out here," said Brant Rotmem, an international environmental politics major and a sophomore. "I'm from Boston. I wanted to come out to Berkeley because it has this huge reputation for forward thinking."

Christine Baker, a senior and anthropology major said, "I'm very proud of that legacy. When my son comes to visit I take him to the Free Speech Cafe."

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