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The University’s Underground Publications

In some parts of the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s, all that an enterprising reporter needed to do to get a good story was to head for the local college campus. Something juicy was almost sure to happen.

At ETSU during the protest years, nobody was shot, no buildings were burned, and no mass demonstrations interrupted classes.

However, students with a variety of points of view weren’t the least bit shy about cranking up mimeograph machines so they could share their wisdom with the world.

The first attempt at using this method of communication turned out to be less than successful. A publication called Students Are People Too circulated on campus near the
end of the spring quarter of 1968.

Several key factual errors appeared in the first issue, which criticized such things as alleged attempts to censor the campus newspaper, women’s dorm rules, the carrying of weapons by campus police, and the quality of food in the cafeteria.

Using an approach sure to raise the ire of many, the writers said that while students at other schools were battling for their rights, most of ETSU’s “sat upon their rears and let the administration crap upon their heads.”

After students involved in the publication were ordered to appear before the ETSU discipline committee, another issue of the publication appeared in which the administration was accused of denying the right to distribute literature on campus.

Despite support by some students and faculty members, eight students were suspended from the university for distributing “inflammatory, seditious, and false material.”  The university’s action eventually was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled that literature designed to disrupt school activities and undermine the administration was not protected under constitutional guarantees of free speech.

The problems experienced by authors of Students Are People Too did not stifle the voices of dissent on campus.  By fall quarter
of the same year, Our Ding-Dong School Paper had appeared, followed shortly thereafter by probably the most memorable publication of its kind — The Frigate.

Edited by a student and a faculty member, The Frigate called itself “an unofficial independent-free student-faculty” publication.  Typical of underground publications that were thriving around the nation at the time, it specialized in the outrageous, holding virtually nothing sacred. 

Among targets of its attacks were living conditions in Carter Hall, dismissals of two sociology professors, mandatory ROTC,
food prices and quality in The Grill, the university’s core curriculum and the John Birch Society. Sure to upset lots of people was the sexual humor that made its way into print.

Although radical in many ways, The Frigate was somewhat unpredictable. For example, its April 30, 1969, issue was highly critical of the “capture” by members of Students for a Democratic Society of the administration building at American University in Washington.

“These students are not interested in education,” the publication said. “They are not even interested in a democratic society; all their energy is being channeled into disruption for disruption’s sake.

“Administrators . . . can get away with such assinine [sic] decisions as our administration has in the past . . . (but) we have no need for SDS on this campus. We do have a need for more concern for students than the present administration exhibits.”

The Frigate had its share of detractors.  A one-shot publication named The Forget It, distributed in 1969, poked fun at what it called “The Free Goat Press,” calling it insipidly boring. 

A deadly serious opponent of The Frigate, named the Rattlesnake, dedicated itself to “the principles that guided Americans in their war of Independence in 1776.” 

In the first issue, the editors wrote: “It will be the aim and duty of this publication to present the FACTS of current campus and national issues. It will not abuse the right of freedom of speech and press by the use of inflamitory [sic], accusitory [sic] or foul language . . .” 

The first issue congratulated the Johnson City police department for its efforts to maintain law and order, criticized “socialist propaganda” posted in the sociology department, and urged readers to write letters commending ETSU President Dr. D. P. Culp for
“his vow to run this University in the best interest of higher education and the students as a majority.” It said, “Let’s not allow a few
militants to control our minds and form our opinions.” 

In the fall of 1969, the first issue of the SMC Newsletter, published by the Student Mobilization Committee, was distributed.  The newsletter, previously known as The Student Voice, has been described as the most radical of the era’s publications on campus. 

The newsletter described the SMC as “a national organization, dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam and giving American GI’s the right of free speech.” It added that the SMC had been organized at ETSU to “give the students a voice in campus affairs.” 

Debuting at ETSU on May 11, 1970 — only a week after four students had been shot to death at Kent State University by members of the Ohio Army National Guard — was a publication called the Blue Button. It stood for “peace, order, and a return to education on campus.” 

In his history of ETSU, Dr. Frank Williams writes: “The unofficial campus publications had minimal influence. The editors and their helpers generally presented points of view that appealed only to a minority of students and faculty.” 

According to Williams: “The youthful editors’ complaints about restrictions on freedom of speech were refuted by the fact that after 1968 the administration made no effort to silence them. Their brief existence reflects lack of support, not censorship.  Much of what they complained about, the administration already had begun to change.” 

(This article was written by Dr. Jerry Hilliard of the Communication faculty, who is a member of the committee that edits “Tales of the University” for the East Tennessee State University Retirees Association.)

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"Tales of the University" is a regular column provided by the ETSU Retirees Association about the university and the people associated with it through the decades.  Faculty, staff, students and alumni are encouraged to share their memories of ETSU with the Retirees Association for consideration for future columns.  Stories, comments and suggestions may be sent to Dr. Willene Paxton, chair of the Tales of the University committee, 1203 Lester Harris Road, Johnson City, TN 37601, or willenepj@charter.net.

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Updated on 09/07/10