At the start of the 1966-67 school year, the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV) declared it would not allow members of the federal government to speak on the UW campus undisturbed. So when it was announced that President Kennedy’s youngest brother was coming to campus on October 27, 1966 to help the gubernatorial campaign of old family friend Patrick J. Lucey, CEWV made plans to disrupt.
That Thursday afternoon at the Stock Pavilion, about thirty-five CEWV members grab spots among the crowd behind the stage; their signs appear in Kennedy’s photos, and their voices are picked up by his microphones. Out in the crowd of three thousand, eight CEWV leaders are set to call out their questions. Mimeographed sheets with a dozen questions have been distributed to their supporters, for those who will join in.
Rising to speak to a standing ovation, Kennedy is immediately peppered with questions from the CEWV leaders, which he repeatedly ignores. Many CEWV members throughout the crowd, and others, begin catcalling and shouting for Kennedy to “talk about the war.”
Unable to proceed, Kennedy invites CEWV chair Robin David to speak from the podium; David reiterates the Socialist Workers Party slogan, “Bring the troops home now,” but is unprepared to debate a United States Senator and obviously outmatched by the charismatic Kennedy.
Aware that Kennedy has won the room, CEWV leaders quickly decide to disrupt his speech with continued heckling, which spreads. Down front, Lee Zeldin provides some of the loudest and most urgent shouts of the afternoon. “I have four sons,” she cries out, “and I don’t want them to die in Asia.” A student tosses a coat over her head; she throws it off and keeps it up.
Others, CEWV and not, join in, and the heckling continues for nearly half an hour. Kennedy finally gives up, unable to finish his remarks. Although CEWV did not direct the widespread heckling after David was dismissed by Kennedy, the group initiated the overall action, and so gets the blame.[i]
Reaction is swift and harsh. UW President Fred Harvey Harrington calls the event “disgraceful.” Chancellor Robben Fleming says, “It’s a sad day,” and asks the Wisconsin Student Association and faculty to “investigate this matter further and report to me.” More than eight thousand students sign an apology. That evening, the city council unanimously passes a resolution, sponsored by all twenty-two aldermen, apologizing to Kennedy and inviting him to come back and speak on city-owned property.[ii]
The faculty’s Student Conduct and Appeals Committee holds a special Saturday session and declares that deliberately interfering with a university-sanctioned speech “may constitute grounds for university disciplinary action, not excluding the possibility, in flagrant or repeated cases, of suspension of expulsion.” Sunday, the powerful University Committee holds a special session and votes to create new policies and procedures to protect the rights to speak and hear.[iii] Veteran protest leader Bob Cohen calls the protest “a defeat for the national anti-war movement,” and mounts an unsuccessful effort to oust the CEWV leadership.
The WSA , sympathizing “with the frustrations that would prompt” the heckling, finds “a technical violation of the principle of free speech.” But because the university had been inconsistent in enforcing policies and procedures, the WSA does not suspend any CEWV rights, opting instead to put the committee on “provisional status” for the rest of the semester.[iv]
Student Senator Paul Soglin opposes even that punishment, saying students should be proud that CEWV insisted that Kennedy honor the university rule requiring a question period. Kennedy had in fact agreed to do so, but for some reason, that was not made publicly known. It wouldn’t have mattered; CEWV would still have heckled.[v]
Although he doesn’t impose any discipline, Fleming is contemptuous of the disrupters, comparing their reliance on “the moral imperative” to the argument used by the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and Chinese Red Guards. And he warns that actions like this threaten free speech on campus. “People do not accept harassing a speaker so he cannot speak,” he tells a meeting of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union in late November. “This more than anything else will bring action down upon us.”[vi]
It certainly brings action down upon the protest movement. On December 12, the faculty overwhelmingly adopts a formal policy againt obstruction, codified as section 11.02 of the University Rules and Regulations. There is no ambiguity about its cause. “This may be called the Ted Kennedy section,” says its chief drafter, political science professor David Fellman
The resolution adopting the rule, immediately binding on the Madison campus, states that those attending a program sponsored by a campus group “have the duty not to obstruct it, and the university has the obligation to protect the right to listen and participate.” Exactly what those terms mean, Fellman says, will be up to the dean of students and the Student Life and Interests Committee.
The Daily Cardinal denounces the “disgraceful display” at the Stock Pavilion and endorses the faculty action as a way to insure free speech. “When student heckling impairs the ability of others to listen,” it editorializes, “this is an abuse of the right of free speech. No one has a monopoly on truth and no one has a monopoly on rights. The ‘Ted Kennedy section’ makes this quite clear.” Most students, the paper declares, “were disgusted” by the CEWV’s action, which “disgraced” the university.[vii]
And the backlash isn’t confined to campus. State Senator Fred Risser warns that conservatives controlling state government will cite this incident in pushing to cut the university’s budget. He’s right, too—they do.
History professor Harvey Goldberg, faculty advisor to the CEWV, takes the long view. “A violation of the free forum took place, which must exist for all,” he acknowledges, but it was in an “urgent attempt to focus attention where attention belongs.”[viii]
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, free speech-loving, mask-wearing, hand-washing socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.