College students monitored by the FBI. Government agents leafing through library records. University professors and officials being questioned – and fired – for their political leanings.
Such activities were commonplace when Clark Kerr was fired from his post as president of the University of California for not cracking down on student activists during the peak of the Cold War.
Today, three days after Kerr passed away, some fear that history is repeating itself.
Although the enemy has changed from the Soviet Union to terrorism, and although the battle fields have shifted from Vietnam to Iraq, the federal government may be scrutinizing higher education in a fashion similar to how it did during the Cold War, say professors, activists and government watchdog agencies.
Every time the United States has gotten into a war situation, the government has become more invasive and slightly more coercive and more secret...I suspect the government has increased its monitoring of student activists under the guise of homeland security.
Legislation passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and a recent FBI memo regarding anti-war demonstrators have been the main catalysts of fears that the government is reverting to Cold War-like policies.
"That the government has been able to expand its intrusion into people's private lives and threaten academic freedom and the academy in the name of fighting terrorism, there's a strong parallel between the use of the Cold War and the Soviet threat in taking away some civil liberties," said Robert Rhoads, a UCLA professor of higher education who studies student activist movements.
The list of what activist groups claim to be civil rights violations is long – and growing.
For example, last year the American Librarians Association passed a resolution condemning the USA PATRIOT Act because of a provision allowing the FBI to sift through patrons' library records. The FBI has denied that it would overstep legal bounds to act on the provision.
Nevertheless, such tactics harken back to the Cold War when the FBI, under Director J. Edgar Hoover, tried to look through library records to determine which patrons had Communist sympathies.
A recent FBI memo circulating among police departments describing the tactics of anti-war demonstrators created an uproar among activists, who claimed the FBI was tracking them. This tactic was also common during the Cold War, when government agents routinely snapped photos and jotted down names of student protesters at political hotbeds such as UC Berkeley.
One student protester who said he was kicked out of Berkeley for his activism during the Cold War is Peter Camejo, a businessman and former Green Party candidate for California governor.
Camejo was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in 1967 and a leading member of the anti-war slate in Berkeley's student government. Within a year, he was thrown out of school because of a speech he made on campus condemning the Vietnam War, Camejo said.
Camejo said he believes there are clear similarities between government policy during the Cold War and the war on terrorism – only now he says things are much worse.
"While in the '60s there were (civil rights) violations, those were done in secrecy. (The government) tried to act as though they were still in a war," he said. "Now, they have simply passed the PATRIOT Act and declared the Bill of Rights invalid."
Although Rhoads said he did not know of any current civil liberty violations committed by the FBI in higher education, he also said people didn't know about violations committed during the 1960s until 20 or 30 years later.
Kerr experienced the conflict between the government and academia firsthand when he became the chancellor of Berkeley in 1952.
Beginning in 1949, UC professors were required to sign a loyalty oath that affirmed they did not belong to a group advocating violent revolution. Although Kerr signed the oath, he defended professors who refused to sign it in the name of academic freedom.
During Kerr's tenure as chancellor, many professors would approach him to ask if they could give a speech on a controversial subject, Kerr said in a May 2002 interview.
"I'd say to them, 'That's a decision for you to make, not for me to make, but you're an American citizen and you ought to do whatever you think an American citizen has a right to do, and if I were you, I'd give the speech,'" he said.
Kerr's stance drew the attention of the FBI. When Kerr became UC president in 1958, Richard Auerbach, who was in charge of FBI field offices in San Francisco, sent a memo to Hoover, calling Kerr "a controversial figure in California education."
The FBI soon became embroiled in a behind-the-scenes war with student activists at Berkeley, spreading disinformation about activists and monitoring student protesters.
The FBI and then-gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan leaned on Kerr to crack down on the students. Kerr refused, and when Reagan won the governorship in 1967, he asked the UC Board of Regents to fire Kerr. They did by a vote of 16 to eight.
Although the government may not be exercising as much force now as it did when Kerr was fired, intervention in areas such as higher education is nothing new, said David Burnham, a professor at Syracuse University and co-founder of Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a government watchdog group.
"Every time the United States has gotten into a war situation, the government has become more invasive and slightly more coercive and more secret," he said.
The suspension of civil liberties dates back to 1798, when Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Act. The act prohibited people from expressing ideas the federal government deemed treasonable and was aimed toward preventing the spread of the ideas about the French Revolution in the United States.
During the Cold War, the FBI was known to have arrested suspected communists on the slightest pretext and planted evidence to implicate students and activists.
Rhoads said he would not be surprised at all to learn that the federal government was taking similar covert actions.
"I suspect the government has increased its monitoring of student activists under the guise of homeland security," he said.
However, many American citizens probably believe the government is justified to a certain extent in its skeptical approach to civil liberties, especially during the war on terrorism, Burnham said.
Burnham, who followed the anti-communist branch of the New York Police Department when he worked as a New York Times reporter in the 1950s, said federal scrutiny of higher education during the Cold War was much more intense than it is now.
However, that is not necessarily a reason to be at ease.
"It seems to me those earlier periods were much worse, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned," he said.
Copyright 2003 ASUCLA Student Media