The United States Supreme Court is once again deciding how much freedom to permit to all Americans. Old rules do not apply, it seems, in the age of the “war on 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 June 21. For some of us, this is nostalgia.

When we left-wing intellectuals were being fired in the 1950s, I remember a snooty characterization by a senior administrator at the 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.”

As a 27-year-old neophyte scientist, I didn’t stand up 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, for the most part, not because they punished our dissent. The main impact of these actions was that they put a chill on dissent by everyone, not just activists or radicals. The censors believed that the quenching of criticism was far more important than the loss of our services to American academia. It wasn’t even the loss of our criticism that was so consequential — far more important was the loss of criticism from our colleagues who remained in academia, but muted.

Later, when I refused to testify before one of the Red-hunting committees of Congress, the press had the idea that I was defending my right to free speech. This was so oversimplified of an assumption that they had nearly missed my entire point: Former Congressman Kit Francis Clardy (R-Mich.)’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 began 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.” It would have protected not my freedom of speech, which is no more important than any other individual’s, but the freedom of everyone’s speech and 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 Internal Security Act (1950), which established the Subversive Activities Control Board, we now have the so-called “Patriot Act.” Fifty-one years after the Supreme Court ruled against Lloyd Barenblatt and me in 1959, the Supreme Court rules against Ralph Fertig and upholds a ban on the knowing provision of material support or resources to a terrorist organization, even if the support is to further peaceful, nonviolent advocacy or humanitarian aid.

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 of non-violence, why worry? 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 itself.

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 finally came to see in the 1970s?

Chandler Davis is a former University mathematics professor.

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