In May of 1970, with the Vietnam War in full swing, the United States invaded Cambodia for the purpose of rooting out the Communists using that country as a base of operations. This led to protests at College campuses across the nation, and the deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio. At this point, the demonstrations exploded on virtually every major campus nationwide.
One problem facing the leaders of these protests was how to exchange news and information with their collegiate brothers and sisters on other campuses. The internet was in it's embryonic stage, and available to only the military and a few select universities; network news and wire services were not to be trusted (after all, they were run by people over the age of 30); the mail was too slow, and in a shambles after the recent postal strike; and long distance telephone calls were too expensive for students surviving on part time jobs and Care Packages from their parents. Thus, they turned to an institution that was prevalent at that time on almost every college campus--Amateur Radio. The Student Information Net was born.
The net appeared on 7260 khz and 14.294 MHz in the 40 and 20 meter bands. Net Controls included K1WGM, at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, and W2UC, at Union College in Schenectady, NY. At first, the net was used solely for the purpose of gathering and exchanging information as to what was happening on the various campuses nationwide. The net was so good at this, as a matter of fact, that they began to feed news to the wire services and the major networks.
However, the net soon expanded in scope, and that's where the trouble began. Dialog was encouraged among the various participants on the merits of the war, and what type of protests should be used. News bulletins were passed as traffic, to be rebroadcast on the college radio stations. Funds were solicited for the continuation of the student strike activities. Traffic was passed encouraging students to send their draft cards to Washington D.C. for a massive bonfire. A boycott of Coca Cola was discussed, as well as a demonstration to be held at Fort Dix on May 16. W2UC and W3EAX exchanged information on the demonstration at the University of Maryland and the attempt to block U.S. Route 1. W2UC claimed that they were forwarding all information received to a "clearing center", the location of which was not specified.
Then it started--the jamming, the deliberate interference, and the name calling by several unidentified stations. The net continued through the jamming, and operated for about a month- -long enough for the U.S. to withdraw from Cambodia, and for the summer break to arrive. But the controversy was just beginning.
The July, 1970 issue of QST contained an editorial in which the ARRL stated that the use of the amateur bands for heated political discussion was a self imposed taboo in amateur radio. They said that because of amateur radio's international status, what goes out over the air can have negative political consequences for us at future radio conferences. As a result, according to the ARRL, there was no place on the amateur bands for arguing about the Vietnam War, advocating resistance to the draft, and talking about the new and permissive morality. The ARRL also condemned the jammers, stating that "Frontier Justice", vigilantes, and "Joe McCarthyism" had even less place than politics in amateur radio.
The letters from hams poured into QST. By a 2 to 1 ratio, they opposed the use of amateur radio for political purposes. One writer stated the net was a violation of national security and notified his local FBI office. Another stated that the net advocated mass disobedience to the laws of the land. One amateur stated "We must keep politics and jammers off the amateur bands. A political discussion on the amateur frequencies is as inappropriate as a political speech on an air traffic control channel". The ARRL's reference to "McCarthyism" brought a rebuke from an amateur who said that Joe McCarthy was a "great American", who was proven correct in every case. And finally, one letter called the net participants "creeps", and sympathized with those who caused the QRM.
On the other side, supporters of the net were appalled at the deliberate jamming and claimed that the net was non-political, provided accurate information, facilitated good will, and prevented false rumors. Members of the Student Information net claimed that the traffic passed was legal and was eventually carried by the UPI & AP wire services.
Several writers brought up constitutional issues, claiming that the First Amendment gave the net operators the right to do what they did, as well as the right for every amateur to discuss anything, including unpopular causes, on the air. One ham, ex-W6SDW, condemned the anti civil libertarian attitude of the ARRL & a majority of hams, and gave up his license as a protest.
The Student Information Net lasted only one month, but it opened the door to the concept that amateur radio did not exist in a technical vacuum, and that discussions of current political and social events were allowable on the amateur bands. Have we gone too far in the "anything goes" direction? That's up to you to decide. As a postscript, W2UC has recently been reactivated at Union College. If you ever hear it on the air, remember the role it played in amateur radio history 28 years ago.
In our next installment, we are going to jump back in time to the depths of the Great Depression, the early 30's. I hope to see you then.
Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY
All rights reserved.
These columns were originally written for the Schenectady Museum Amateur Radio Club.