The Defendant is Not Important

Chandler Davis

The United States Supreme Court is once again deciding how much freedom to permit us. Old rules do not apply, it seems, in the age of the “war against terror.” Our government needs a whole new set of restrictions on speech and advocacy: see the decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, handed down 21 June.

This is nostalgia week for some of us.

When we left-wing intellectuals were being fired in the 1950s, I remember a snooty characterization by a senior administrator at my university. Let us call him Dean Abbott (I prefer not to disclose his identity, but anyway I don’t recall his name). He assured a meeting of the faculty that they didn’t need to waste their sympathy for those who might be attacked in the Red-hunt, for “these people are not important.”

I didn’t stand up — a 27-year-old neophyte scientist — and argue that I was so important. I did right not to. The firings, and the Congressional panels and prison sentences that accompanied them, were important all right. But not mostly because they punished our dissent. The main thing was that they put a chill on dissent by everyone. Loss of our services to the American academy was much less important than the quenching of criticism there; and the loss of whatever criticism we might have made was enormously less important than the loss of criticism from our colleagues who remained in the academy, but muted.

Later, when I refused to testify before one of the Red-hunting committees of Congress, the press had it that I was defending my right to free speech. Over-simplification! Almost missing the point! Congressman Clardy’s Committee was intimidating my fellow citizens, who were more important because there were more of them. I thought the courts ought to outlaw the intimidation, so I chose to defy it. The only way the courts could have kept me out of prison, I figured, was to rule that the committees were overstepping their authority. The courts didn’t rule as I had hoped — not until a decade later.

When I was starting my prison term, I cockily put it this way to a reporter: “Six months of my life is not too much to give in the service of my country.” Another reporter asked me at the last minute, “If you’re willing to serve six months in prison, why did you appeal your conviction?” He really didn’t get it! I explained, as the federal marshals whisked me away, “If I had won at the Supreme Court, the hearings would have been outlawed. That would have been a bigger contribution.”

Not to my freedom of speech, which is no more important than any other individual’s: but to the freedom of general speech, exchange of views, by which democratic decision can occur; without which it can not.

And here we are again. Fifty-one years after the McCarran Act (1950), here comes the so-called “Patriot Act.” Fifty-one years after the Supreme Court ruled against Lloyd Barenblatt and me (1959), the Supreme Court rules against Ralph Fertig. We are supposed to shrug: after all, some of the thousands whose right to due process is annulled are probably guilty of something. If Ralph Fertig is prevented from helping some Kurds, even though he offers them no weapons but only teaching in non-violence, why worry: after all, some of them are supposedly guilty of something. But Dean Abbott, however unfair his scorn was, had it right in spite of himself. The targets of political repression may not be important. The repression is much more important than any individual target, because it is an attack on the life of society.

As my fellow defendant Pete Seeger puts it — When will they ever learn? Will it take the Supreme Court another ten years and another score of cases to re-learn what it came to see in the 1970s?