Why Musicians Have a Stake in Defending the 1st Amendment

President's Report

Volume C, No. 2February, 2000

Bill Moriarity

The ability to freely express ideas and opinions has been an essential part of the U.S. labor movement’s struggles since its beginnings more than 100 years ago. Trade unionists were among the first to engage in free speech battles and were fired, jailed and in some cases killed for exercising this most precious right. From the period prior to the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 up until the present, organized labor has relied on its right to free speech to educate, inform and, ultimately, convince the general population of working men’s and women’s condition, and to communicate a vision of betterment and change for all.

This has never been easy, of course. People have lost their jobs, their health and their lives to make certain that we would all be able to continue communicating our message, no matter how unpalatable that message might be for those in authority.

Unfortunately, this right – like others – requires eternal vigilance. There will always be those for whom life is comfortable, who are therefore satisfied with the status quo, and who fight any and all measures for change. And some of those opposed to change go a step further and seek to prohibit even the expression of ideas that advocate change. Many a boot has come down on those who have done nothing more than publicly express an unpopular idea.

Musicians – artists of all kinds – should be especially sensitive to the slightest move in the direction of repression, because the good health of our life’s endeavor depends on these freedoms. Music has long been perceived as among the more effective tools for reform and, in consequence, has been subject to frequent censorship measures over the years.

For some time now events have occurred – no single definitive one, but taken together, events that constitute a trend that worries many of us living in New York City.

  • City Hall has been, to all intents and purposes, closed for public use. At times even City Council members have been denied access to the steps of City Hall, a historic site of public debate. At enormous expense, City Hall Park has been renovated in a way that makes it impossible to hold large assemblies there.
  • The courts and New York City’s permit system have been used to deny segments of the public the right to march and rally. Even when the courts have ruled that the demonstrations must be allowed to proceed, the last-minute timing of these rulings has effectively limited participation and thereby put a chill on all such activities.
  • In several recent cases, artists’ rights to free expression have come under attack. Last summer the Mayor tried to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum because he disliked some of the works included in an exhibition. More recently, an artist involved in a homeless rally was subjected to a seemingly illegal search and seizure of his personal property.
  • The labor movement has also been a target. Transit Workers’ Union members dissatisfied with the results of negotiation were prevented from even expressing their opposition to the Taylor law, which prohibits work stoppages by public sector employees. Whether you agree with these workers or not (I don’t; I thought the results of the TWU negotiations were fine) it seems undeniable that curtailing their right to publicly discuss civil disobedience is one step too far in law enforcement.

Closer to home, Local 802 (and anyone else) was prevented from leafleting on Lincoln Center Plaza during the recent New York City Ballet lockout. This effectively denied our right to picket in front of the place we work, even though it is New York State property. And a motorist who honked his horn in support of our demonstration was pulled over, given a summons and required to make a court appearance.

The question is not how you feel about these specific issues. In a democratic society the right to express an opinion – no matter how irrational – must be protected. In fact, the litmus test for free expression is not the ability to express popular ideas, but to voice extremely unpopular ones.

Both this local and its members have opportunities in the near future to address this issue:

  • 2000 is an important election year. Many of the candidates for higher office have a track record on free speech issues; this is especially true of the probable Republican candidate for Senator Moynihan’s vacated seat. Rudolph Giuliani’s past history regarding the expression of ideas he finds offensive is abominable, and should be given great weight when voting for a new Senator.
  • Housing Works, Inc., a citizen advocacy group in the Chelsea-Clinton area, is a party to litigation intended to liberate City Hall steps; Local 802 is in contact with them to offer any support that may be needed.
  • Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees is involved in court proceedings that, if successful, would allow leafleting on Lincoln Center Plaza – another initiative this local is supporting.

We cannot defend our right to free expression too early. Constant vigilance is crucial, as the following quote by Pastor Martin Niemoller makes clear:

“In Germany, they first came for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me – and by that time no one was left to speak up.”