The Battle of Student Activism

The issue of student free speech and protest was prevalent across America in the midst of the Vietnam War. Many college students had strong objections to the United States’ involvement in the war and were not afraid to show their disapproval through protests. Students on the campus of Loyola University were among those who had strong opinions that needed to be heard. A policy statement issued by Loyola University president Charles S. Casassa on September 5, 1968, attempted to effectively silence student protests by deeming the way in which students went about their protesting “unlawful.” This document presents many questions, not only about student protests at Loyola specifically, but in the broader sense: how were student protests viewed across the nation? Even when faced with conflict and suppression, students did anything they could to make their voices heard by the American people.

Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

The spread of communism in North Vietnam, leading to the conflict between north and south Vietnam, caused the United States to get involved in trying to prevent what was known as the “domino effect.” The domino effect referred to common beliefs about the spread of communism, where if one country adopted it, the surrounding countries would soon fall as well. Out of such a fear, in 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged to aid South Vietnam in their fight against communism. Protests against the United States’ involvement in the war began to pick up in 1967 due to the rapid rise in American soldier deaths in Vietnam. In the two years before, the number of Americans who had died in Vietnam rose by over one thousand percent (Anderson & Ernst). Americans across the country were able to see the brutality of the war through television, which made it unlike any other war that the country had seen before. As stated in David Anderson and John Ernst’s book The War That Never Ends, this mass exposure to the war led more and more Americans to question the country’s involvement and to the explosion of protesting across the nation.

Protests by American citizens were not always simple and peaceful. While many protests involved chanting phrases like “We won’t go!” or standing outside university buildings or in the streets holding signs in a group demanding attention from those around them, others took a different approach. As anti-war protests began to increase, Americans wanted to make a lasting impact while broadcasting their stance to the nation, with some protests becoming more radical. As Anderson and Ernst note, “In New York’s Central Park, about 175 young men burned their draft cards. A couple of demonstrators carried Viet Cong flags—and one burned the Stars and Stripes.” Many protestors considered the United States’ involvement in the war an act of treason and demanded that it be stopped immediately. This version of protesting did not necessarily require the attention of any person in particular but did send a message to the United States government directly.

In the 1960s, there were several different issues that brought student activism into the forefront. For example, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964 emerged from a small group of students promoting civil rights on-campus, which at the time was still regularly denied to college students (Cohen). This movement first began with students setting up tables to raise donations on the university’s property, which defied Berkeley’s ban on-campus political advocacy. Berkeley students intentionally defied this ban because they believed it went against their right to free speech and was also an attempt to “undermine the growing involvement of Berkeley students in the civil rights movement” (Cohen). This small effort quickly blew up, resulting in the arrest of a university student and a sit-in involving thousands of students. The students began making demands regarding free speech, which were eventually granted in the form of hearings reviewing campus political restrictions. This was not the end of the student activism on campus, as another sit-in brought a police force of over 600 officers to remove thousands of students protesting for free speech once again from Sproul Hall. The Berkeley free speech movement showed the apparent over-reaction of college campuses when it came to students exercising their rights to free speech.            

A Photo of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement Protesting (source)

While student protest and activism have a long record in the past, the flame does not appear to be dying down in modern times. The Tinker case of 1965 established that schools do not have absolute authority over their students, and free speech is for everyone, including younger students (Walsh). Events like these are what modern student activists have to thank for their continued support and lawful backing in their free speech demonstrations.

There is no evidence that the protests on Loyola University’s campus ever reached high levels of violence or activism. A first-hand perspective of what the Loyola University student protests looked like were four photographs taken at one of the rallies that students were held right outside of St. Robert’s Hall. These photos show a relatively small group of students with signs expressing disapproval of the US government along with other phrases such as “When will we leave” and “Peace by loving all brothers.” One student appears to be yelling, but no signs of burning flags or any forms of violence.

Antiwar protest in Westchester, 1970, Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

These photos were taken two years after President Casassa’s policy statement about student protests on university grounds, which proves that student protests were still well and alive after students were told to not participate in unlawful protest. The Casassa statement threatened to bring police forces onto campus to disperse groups of students: “Should this occur it is the right and responsibility of the University to act to remedy the situation even to the extent of summoning municipal authority.” The opinions of the university’s administration on student anti-war protesting were never clarified in the policy statement. While students were threatened with police force if necessary, the document also stated that Loyola University functions “As an open forum for the free expression of ideas.” Loyola University did not want to tell its students that they were not allowed to protect during the national conflict, but at the same time this statement attempted to silence the current protesting happening on campus.

An aspect of Loyola University that is often overlooked when considering student activism is the steadfast faith life present on campus. These ideals presented by the university absolutely influenced the methods and stances that some students had when it came to protesting the Vietnam War. In a journal article titled “A Matter of Conscience: The Selective Conscientious Objector, Catholic College Students, and the Vietnam War,” Helen Ciernick explores the role that specifically Catholic college students played in the anti-war movement. In 1965, Catholic colleges created a practice known as the Peace Mass. Catholic college students across the nation began holding teach-ins on US foreign policy as well as on-campus draft-counseling services. While students were working hard to educate their colleagues, Ciernick’s article claims that Catholic students’ opposition was also to the draft. Catholic faculty at schools like the University of Notre Dame supported expressions of opposition to the war such as “draft-card burnings, draft-card turn-ins, draft counseling, and draft board raids” (Ciernick). With such a large group of Americans taking part in this offense against the United States government, Congress made the act of destroying a draft card a federal crime paired with a ten thousand dollar fine. Catholic college students were sure to apply their religious values to their protesting of the war, helping out their community and standing up for those who needed help.

Overall, the letter from President Casassa can be put in a much larger collage of student activism across America in the 1960s. The Vietnam War indirectly brought out many questions of student activism and free speech limits, ultimately resulting in the society that exists in the present day. Students are able to protest whatever they please without much push-back from officials or the community. There are several groups and individuals to thank for the freedom that exists today, but their efforts still burn brightly in the eyes of student activists all around America.

Written by Matthew Ruggles, History, 2022


For Further Reading:

Anderson, David L., and John Ernst, eds. The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War. Paperback edition. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

Casassa, Charles. “Policy on Unlawful Student Protest.” Loyola University of Los Angeles, September 5, 1968. Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Ciernick, Helen. “A Matter of Conscience: The Selective Conscientious Objector, Catholic College Students, and the Vietnam War.” US Catholic Historian 26, no. 3 (2008).

Cohen, Robby. “Berkeley Free Speech Movement: Paving the Way for Campus Activism.” OAH Magazine of History 1, no. 1 (April 1985): 16–18.

Vietnam Peace Protest Photographs, May 12, 1970, 11×14. Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Walsh, Mark. “Landmark Case on Student Free Speech Still Resonates 50 Years Later.” Editorial Projects in Education, Inc. 38, no. 23 (2019).