Law in Action: A 1972 protest turns violent and brings UW Law students, faculty together

By Tammy Kempfert

In Madison, antiwar activism runs deep, with a tradition dating back to Law School graduate Robert La Follette and his strong opposition to entering World War I.

But as protests go, no era was more turbulent than the 1960s, when UW-Madison students got national attention for their resistance to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. As the war escalated, so did campus activism—and the Law School community often found itself at the center of the storm.

On May 10, 1972, nearly four years after the Dow Chemical protests and two years after the Sterling Hall bombing, law students organized a peaceful protest at the Federal Courthouse in Madison. A police-protester confrontation that followed the rally resulted in the arrest of seven activists, six of whom were Law School students. Several witnesses alleged police misconduct, claiming that the officers’ use of night sticks against the protesters was brutal and unprovoked.

According to local news reports, around 150 law students marched to the offices of the Wisconsin State Bar on May 11 with a list of demands, among them that no disciplinary action be taken against protesting law students. Phil Habermann ’47, then the bar’s executive director, assured the group that the bar would not further penalize students involved in war resistance.

The student charged with the most serious offense, assaulting a federal officer, was cleared later that month. Federal magistrate Barbara Crabb ruled on May 31 that the government had not proven its case against the student, who had been accused of kicking a courthouse security guard during the protest.

Several students also filed a class action suit against local law enforcement officials for infringement of their constitutional right to peaceful assembly. In addition to $100,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, students sought an injunction against law enforcement that would immediately prohibit brutal treatment of protesters, unlawful use of riot gas and name calling.

Ted Finman, now a UW Law professor emeritus, argued for the plaintiffs. Finman presented more than 30 affidavits from students, faculty and other rally onlookers who testified that police used excessive force against the protesters.

Meanwhile, 28 UW Law professors signed a letter to U.S. Attorney John Olson calling for an investigation into allegations of police misconduct at the rally. It read, in part: “A large number of responsible students and faculty at the Law School have made written statements testifying to numerous unprovoked assaults by federal and local police officials by participants in the demonstration.”

“Just as battery on a police official by a civilian is a criminal offense, so is unprovoked battery on a civilian by a police official a criminal offense,” the letter continued.

Among the concerned faculty was Bill Whitford, now UW Law professor emeritus, who circulated the letter to the press. He also appealed to his colleagues to make contributions to a students’ defense fund, set up by the Student Bar Association. The documents included here are from Whitford’s personal archives.