Freedom Spent

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

It is an article of faith with most Americans that personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, and particularly by the Bill of Rights, are inalienable bulwarks against oppression and tyranny. It is the equally firm conviction of Richard Harris that such individual liberties, far from being inalienable, form an extremely fragile protective structure already seriously eroded by governmental efforts to circumvent it; and that the average citizen, lulled by faith and a false sense of security, is more vulnerable than at any other period in the nation’s history. The evidence amassed by Harris to support this thesis consists of three case studies and a partial history of legislation and court decisions relating to civil rights in America. It forms an impressive and frightening document.

The first case detailed in Freedom Spent is that of Charles James, teacher of eleventh-grade English, who was fired in 1969 for refusing to remove a black armband he had worn to class in protest against the fighting in Vietnam. James appealed the school administration’s decision; when he lost at the state level his case was taken to federal courts by the American Civil Liberties Union. Losing again in district court, he was vindicated by the Court of Appeals in 1972. A final settlement with the school in regard to status and back pay was not reached until 1975.

The James case is unsatisfying in several respects. Although his battle was won on grounds that his right to freedom of speech and expression had been violated, James always maintained he had worn the armband as a moral and religious statement against killing in general and that the wrong issue was decided upon. The problem this position poses for the reader is that Harris offers no evidence indicating James ever contemplated wearing his armband anywhere other than in the school where he taught, and the sticky ethical questions raised by possible intended use of a captive audience for political indoctrination are never really addressed. Although Harris writes with evident sympathy of hardships endured by the family while its ordeal was in progress, our own sympathy is somewhat diluted by an impression that James made an either-or decision that if he could not teach he would go on welfare. The impression is reinforced when Harris notes that James and his wife considered the welfare agency demeaning and lacking in compassion. Although this case study demonstrates eventual victory by an individual after protracted struggle against government, it appears that a more inspiring and clear-cut example might have been selected.

The second case chosen by Harris is that of Alan McSurely and his wife Margaret, Marxist activists who attempted to organize the Appalachian poor and were arrested in 1967, following illegal search and seizure of their property, for violating a Kentucky sedition law. Their case went from local to federal courts, with a federal panel ruling the sedition law unconstitutional and finding their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. However, it did not rule on the confiscated property—consisting largely of radical literature—and the litigation continued. It took on aspects of the bizarre when confiscated love letters written by columnist Drew Pearson to his former mistress, Margaret McSurely, came to the attention of United States Senator John L. McClellan. This powerful legislator apparently seized upon the information as an opportunity to discredit Pearson, and the McSurelys were called upon to testify before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which McClellan chaired. They were not cooperative and were, after undergoing the bullying tactics common to such bodies, cited for contempt of Congress. Faced with prison, they took their appeal to the Supreme Court; but before it could be heard, the Department of Justice elected to drop all charges against them. In the meanwhile they had brought civil charges against McClellan and his subcommittee, the final outcome of which had not been determined when Freedom Spent went to press.

Although the McSurely case is a lengthy and bewildering tangle at times reminiscent of Kafka, Harris threads its mazes lucidly enough. He is openly sympathetic and often identifies closely, perhaps too closely, with the defendants, whose ordeal seems as exhausting to the reader as it must have been to them. Human interest aside, the case is a poor choice because no final legal decision was ever rendered in regard to it. McSurely’s immaturity is often exasperating and his radicalism seems to have been largely rhetorical; Harris argues convincingly that this case and the preceding one involve persons who were essentially harmless, precipitated into the courts by public hysteria. His belief that such hysteria was deliberately created and orchestrated by the government may be open to question but cannot be discounted entirely.

The third case is that of a lesbian couple, Ellen Grusse and Terri Turgeon, who were...

(The entire section is 2037 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Kirkus Reviews. XLIV, August 15, 1976, p. 939.

Library Journal. CI, November 15, 1976, p. 2388.

New York Times Book Review. November 28, 1976, p. 1.

New Yorker. LII, December 13, 1976, p. 162.

Newsweek. LXXXVIII, November 22, 1976, p. 116.