They’re all around 60 now, solid citizens, mellowed with age. These former college classmates jokingly refer to their old group as the Fitchburg Seven. Back in 1969, however, they were dead serious.
Back then, staff members of the student newspaper at Fitchburg State College filed suit after the school’s administration pulled their funding over what it saw as inappropriate content, including profanity and sexual innuendo. Led by Tewksbury native John Antonelli, a junior and editor of the campus newspaper called the Cycle, the students sued college President James J. Hammond in federal court, and won.
Now, more than 40 years later, several of the old friends will reconvene Monday in a forum at what is now Fitchburg State University. The old administration is long gone, and current faculty members see an opportunity to teach the First Amendment to students who are amazed to learn that some of their predecessors at the small state school made national headlines.
The former student activists, who went on to become, among other things, a filmmaker, an analyst for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a food industry salesman, and a Massachusetts state representative, were all shocked to be invited back to the campus where they protested as much as they studied.
When the college invited them to take part in the Constitution Day forum, “we thought they were kidding,’’ said Eleanor Jewett, a student government activist who worked as a producer for WGBH before joining FEMA. “It reminds me that things do change. Sometimes I guess it takes 40 years.’’
Like many college campuses in 1969, Fitchburg State was struggling mightily with the generation gap. The Vietnam War was raging.
Civil rights was a dominant issue, and members of the opposite sex were strictly forbidden from each other’s dormitories. Jewett recalls running through a boys-only shop class to protest institutionalized sexism.
“A lot of people thought Hammond was way too conservative.”Ed Thomas, former Fitchburg State history professor
That school year “was a very crazy year,’’ said Ed Thomas, who recently retired after 39 years as a history professor at Fitchburg State. “We didn’t have finals because of the Kent State killings.
“A lot of people thought Hammond was way too conservative,’’ he added. “Then again, those were the sorts of people who were running the country then.’’
Amid the turmoil, Cycle editors published increasingly provocative content. The summer before his junior year, Antonelli traveled with Tony McNamara, who would become president of the senior class, to Boulder, Colo., for a conference on student newspapers. The conference featured workshops with members of the Black Panthers and of Students for a Democratic Society. On the trip back, the two students went to Woodstock.
Antonelli, now a documentary filmmaker in Sausalito, Calif., said they returned to campus determined to challenge the administration. “We knew we were testing the limits,’’ he said.
“There was so much in the air, you couldn’t really hold down this cultural energy,’’ Antonelli said. “But they were doing exactly that on the Fitchburg campus. We knew we were standing right on top of the First Amendment. It felt to me like a challenge.’’
In one issue in fall 1969, the newspaper’s local printer blocked out a four-letter word. For the next issue, Antonelli decided to publish a sexually charged excerpt of an autobiographical manuscript by activist Eldridge Cleaver.
The printer, who worked out of his garage in Fitchburg, alerted Hammond. When Antonelli, McNamara, and freshman contributor Mark Rice arrived at the print shop to work on the layout, the president confronted them. The school was withholding their funding, he said.
The editors sought help from peers at other state colleges. In solidarity, student journalists at Bridgewater State, Worcester State, and elsewhere ran (or tried to run) the Cleaver story. Students at Salem State published an edition of their own paper with the censored issue of the Cycle printed on the reverse fold.
Antonelli, who was 20 at the time, launched a court case against the administration, citing freedom of the press. Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., later famous for his pivotal role in Boston’s school busing crisis, handed down a landmark decision in favor of the students in February 1970. In his ruling, widely reported, Garrity cited “the potentially great value of a free student voice in an age of student awareness and unrest.’’
The group’s return to campus came about almost by accident.
One day last spring, Rice, who has lived outside Chicago for years, walked into the student union building at his alma mater. He had been told that his name had been left off a plaque honoring past student body presidents.
That turned out to be inaccurate; the plaque simply was not finished. As it happened, the student government was preparing for its monthly meeting, and Rice was invited to speak. When a faculty adviser asked whether he knew anything about a court case involving the old school newspaper, Rice smiled.
The adviser, Dr. David Weiss, was a criminal justice professor who coproduces the school’s annual Constitution Day observance. He asked Rice to help him contact the other members of his old circle for this year’s event.
One of them, William Benson, went on from the college to serve as a Massachusetts state representative for six years. Before he was elected to office, Benson was active in the early days of the No Nukes movement.
Rice has remained active in the “establishment middle class’’ in Naperville, Ill., he says, serving on civic boards and in the local Rotary Club while raising two sons. He still calls Jewett when he hears a song that reminds him of their days as student radicals.
“Actually, I’m probably more radical in my thinking today than I was back then, although I’m a salesman for a baking-powder company,’’ he says. “That’s just the way it goes.’’James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.