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3. Dannie Martin

Turner, William Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

“I committed bank robbery and they put me in prison, and that was right. Then I committed journalism and they put me in the hole. And that was wrong.” So said Dannie Martin, a convict’s convict. A longtime heroin addict and alcoholic, Martin knew jails inside and out, mostly from the insider’s point of view. Caught red-handed in a bank robbery in a little town in Washington, Martin was sentenced to 33 years in federal prison.

Prison gave Martin plenty of time to complete the education he never got in the “free” world, and he was an avid reader. He started to write, and it turned out that he had a remarkable gift: the ability to write clearheadedly, honestly, and affectingly about life in prison. No self-pity here, no claims of innocence, no macho braggadocio, no prisoner clichès.

In July, 1986, while in the federal prison at Lompoc, California, Martin mailed off to the San Francisco Chronicle an article he wrote on AIDS in prison. It vividly revealed for the public how serious the epidemic was among prisoners. It landed on the desk of Peter Sussman, editor of the Chronicle’s Sunday Punch section. Sussman liked the piece, determined to publish it, added Martin’s byline, and sent a check for $100 as the standard freelancer’s fee. The article ran on Sunday, August 3, 1986, and readers liked it. Martin continued to submit articles, all first-person essays and vignettes of prison life, and Sussman continued to publish them. They covered diverse facets of prison life that captured the imagination of Chronicle readers and made Martin the most popular regular contributor to the Sunday Punch. One of my personal favorites was “Requiem for Mr. Squirrel,” a poignant story of how Martin alleviated boredom and the lack of meaningful relationships by feeding a grateful and friendly squirrel, whom the prison officials soon poisoned.

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7. Clarence Brandenburg

Turner, William Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

“Personally, I believe the nigger should be returned to Africa, the Jew returned to Israel,” Clarence Brandenburg said. The film showed twelve hooded figures, some of whom carried firearms. They gathered around a large wooden cross, which they burned. The members of the group could be heard saying, “This is what we are going to do to the niggers,” “Save America,” “Bury the niggers,” “Freedom for the whites.”

In the late 1960s, Brandenburg was a Ku Klux Klan leader in Cincinnati. He had telephoned a local television station and invited a reporter to come to a Klan rally at a farm in Hamilton County. The reporter, accompanied by a cameraperson, attended the rally and filmed it. During the rally Brandenburg made a speech, in which he said, “We’re not a revengent [sic] organization, but if our president, our congress, our Supreme Court continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race, it’s possible that there might have to be some revengeance [sic] taken.”

Brandenburg was prosecuted under an Ohio criminal syndicalism law of the same vintage as the “red flag” law used to prosecute Yetta Stromberg in California, one of the batch of similar World War I–era laws passed by states out of fear of Bolshevism. The Ohio law made it a felony to “advocate ... the duty, necessity, or propriety of crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.” Brandenburg was convicted, fined, and sentenced to one to ten years in prison.

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4. Raymond Procunier and Robert H. Schnacke

Turner, William Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Ray Procunier deserved to be considered a First Amendment villain. He authorized and defended the oppressive California prison censorship rules in Procunier v. Martinez. But he got a chance to redeem himself, and he rose to the occasion.

The occasion was provided by Robert Schnacke, a federal district judge in San Francisco. Schnacke, like so many judges, was a former prosecutor. While a U.S. Attorney, he had even prosecuted a sedition case in the McCarthy era, charging writer John Powell with having accused the U.S. military of using germ warfare in the Korean War. Schnacke was a crusty, conservative Republican known to be hostile to civil liberties cases. But he had a maverick streak as well, perhaps evidenced by his being caught in a noontime police raid of the Market Street Cinema adult theater in the Tenderloin.

Procunier and Schnacke were two curmudgeonly old-timers who found themselves on opposite sides of a very difficult First Amendment issue: whether prison officials can prohibit news organizations from televising executions. No American execution has ever been televised.

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9. Clinton Fein and the ACLU

Turner, William Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Clinton Fein felt betrayed. He thought he had been promised freedom of expression. Instead he got the Communications Decency Act.

Born in South Africa, Fein grew up under Apartheid. As he graduated from the University of Witwatersrand, he was interested in journalism. But the South Africa of the time was not a promising environment for young journalists. Under the repressive censorship regime, one could be imprisoned for quoting Nelson Mandela, who was then in prison for revolutionary activities. Fein emigrated to the United States, studied for citizenship, learned all about the Constitution, and was naturalized in 1994. When he took the oath, he was bemused by the seeming contradiction in having to swear to God to defend a constitution that prohibited any religious coercion. But his primary allegiance, and hope, lay with the First Amendment’s free-speech clause. Then Congress enacted, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Communications Decency Act of 1996. As a result, because his speech was online and subject to the Act, Fein would have had freer speech in South Africa, which by that time was post-Apartheid, than he had in the United States. Fein’s sense of betrayal propelled him to the federal courthouse.

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6. Richard Hongisto

Turner, William Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Richard Hongisto was an enigma: a maverick cop who became a politician, a jailer who became a First Amendment hero, a police chief who became a First Amendment villain. He helped in trying to open the doors of government. Later he acted like a petty tyrant and clumsily tried to suppress criticism that stung him. He lurched from friend of a free press to destroyer of newspapers.

Hongisto worked as a San Francisco police officer in the turbulent 1960s. He was the only white officer to testify in federal court on behalf of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging discrimination against African Americans on the police force. In 1971, he ran for Sheriff against the longtime incumbent and won an upset victory. As sheriff, he recruited minority deputies, appointed the first openly gay deputy, and tried to improve jail conditions. In charge of the San Francisco jails, he opened the doors to the press. In 1972, for example, he allowed local public television station KQED to do a 90-minute live television program from inside the jail. It vividly showed squalid jail conditions and included on-the-spot interviews with both prisoners and guards.

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