Attorney Dan Siegel discusses his life’s work, from his early years as a civil rights and antiwar activist, to his legal career as a nationally-recognized labor law expert defending professors and athletic coaches under fire from university administrators.
A 1970 graduate of University of California Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, Siegel was initially denied entry to the California Bar because of his free speech and antiwar activism. After successfully contesting this decision before California’s Supreme Court, he helped establish the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Project in Southeast Asia. In 1973 Siegel returned to the Bay Area to begin a community law collective representing workers and labor unions in employment discrimination, labor law, and civil rights litigation.
In 2014 Siegel ran for Mayor of Oakland, coming in 4th place out of a field of almost 20 candidates.
Mr. Siegel began his activism on civil rights issues as an undergraduate student at Hamilton College in New York following the deaths of civil rights workers in the deep South.
“I would say that my experience at Hamilton taught me by negative example to stand up for my rights,” he recalls.
When as an undergraduate I became involved in the civil rights movement and attempted to recruit Hamilton students to become involved I was met with pretty negative and abusive responses from some of my fellow students, including being called the “n-word” with the term “lover” after it when I would stand up at campus meetings to invite people to meetings of the Utica chapter of [Congress on Racial Equality]. And I think that experience, among other things, forced me to be very firm and clear about my beliefs because I had to defend them, sometimes against behavior that was at least violent in rhetoric if not actual conduct. But Hamilton otherwise was a good place to go to college.
After graduating from Hamilton with top honors, Siegel moved to the Bay Area to attend law school, where at Berkeley he continued his student activism as a leader of Students for Democratic Society, aiding the region’s mobilization against the Vietnam War and challenging the anti-free speech practices of Berkeley administrators and entire UC system.
Indeed, as student body president Siegel ended up going head-to-head with then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who condemned the entire Cal student body for electing Siegel president. “We were very powerful as an anti-war movement in the Bay Area and particularly at Berkeley. We went on to have mammoth demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and against the draft. In Berkeley we developed one of the strongest chapters of the Vietnam Moratorium in the fall of ’69 and ’70. We closed down the Cal campus for the last six weeks of the ’69-’70 school year over the invasion of Cambodia and the murder of students, both at Kent State and at Jackson State.”
Perhaps the highlight of Siegel’s early years of activism was the takeover of UC Berkeley’s People’s Park, an incident later used by state officials to declare him unfit to practice law. “I know a lot of people, especially in other parts of the country or even the world look at People’s Park as kind of an odd development in the sense of, ‘Well, why were people so upset about a park, and what does that have to do with the rest of the student movement.’
“But in Berkeley it really did arise in a historical development of fights with the university administration and with the state, particularly when Ronald Reagan was governor, over whether students at the Berkeley campus would be able to organize, and that’s really what the free speech movement was about in 1964, when the Berkeley campus administration decided that students would not be allowed to utilize campus facilities to organize for civil rights.”
This spirit toward defense of civil rights and political dissent was carried over into the late 1960s, where the focus changed to Vietnam and conscription.
It was almost like an ongoing and continuous fight with the UC campus administration and with the state over whether we could organize anti-war activities and anti-draft activities on the UC campus. That was the context of People’s Park. People’s Park was in an area where there had been a lot of inexpensive housing that many students activists lived in. The university, which owned that lot, knocked down the housing and left a vacant lot behind, which over years was just a garbage dump and community eye sore. People decided to try to reclaim the land and create a park, and then the university decided we couldn’t do that. That was the same university that, a year previously, threatened students and disciplined students for attempting to organize an anti-draft commencement on the campus. That’s why it became such a cause for us–not simply because it was a park, but because this was part of an ongoing fight with the University of California administration about whether students could utilize campus property for organizing.
One of Siegel’s most notable cases involved the successful representation of UC Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela. Chapela is a microbial biologist whose work expressed reservations on the largely corporate-promoted science of genetic modification technology. The faculty member’s outspokenness on GMOs and the UC’s close ties to the biotech industry led to his denial of tenure.
Yet Siegel observes that academic freedom is not as central to university life as it probably should be, especially because faculty with the security of tenured positions seldom address or comment on potentially volatile issues. “First of all, academic freedom only becomes an issue where academics are making statements that are controversial in terms of what the power structure wants to hear. In most cases, that’s simply not happening. So there aren’t that many challenges to academic freedom because academic freedom’s not being exercised.”
An exception to this, he observes, is criticism of Israel’s militarism and influence on American foreign policy.
Many of the academic freedom cases that we’re seeing these days involve students or faculty members who are critical of the Israeli government, or are critical of the Zionist movement. Those faculty members in particular, depending of course on where they happen to live and work, find themselves under attack by organizations that brand them as “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic”, and put pressure on university administrators to try and rein in their conversations.
Recently at the Berkeley campus the new Chancellor–Chancellor [Nicholas] Dirks–has suggested, and he uses the term “suggestion,” that conversations that may offend some supporters of the state of Israel, or offend some Jewish students, should be avoided on the grounds of “civility.” But on other campuses faculty members who are overtly or strongly critical of Israel and the Zionist movement find themselves being threatened, find their jobs being threatened. Certainly faculty members who do not have tenure in many places would be well-advised to avoid commenting on some of these issues for fear that they may never get tenure.
Mr. Siegel’s complete bio and related professional information are available at www.siegelyee.com/dansiegel.html