The Broadside as Polemic


A Hop, Skip and a Jump Through the History of the
First Amendment to the United States Constitution

Tue, 22 Feb 2005

Elegy for the Dusky Seaside Sparrow
Nancy Davis
Big Bridge Press
2000 Cabrillo Highway
Pacifica CA 94044

Pardon Us (DeKooning and post-Modern Politics)
John Risseeuw
Cabbage Head Press
1272 East Loma Vista Drive
Tempe AZ 85282

Plutonium (PU...U Stink)
Gordon Flute
Graham Cracker Press
1223 East Spruce Street
Tempe AZ 85281

Were it not for the First Amendment and its champion, the American Civil Liberties Union, the printers of these three polemical broadsides submitted in competition to Fine Print would most likely be in jail, and their work destroyed by the police. We must be careful to recognize that the substance of much speech that we today take for granted was, within living memory, and despite the blackletter of the Bill of Rights, effectively illegal, for which the speaker, author, printer and publisher could be fined and imprisoned. Only persistent defense of the First Amendment by the ACLU has won for us the right to speak and publish as we see fit, without respect of persons or fear of retribution. That these battles are going on now and will continue forever is illustrated by the Reagan Administration's apparent hostility towards the very idea of the Bill of Rights, as manifested in efforts to restrict, control and manipulate information that should without prejudice be available to the public.

A discussion of the struggle for freedom of speech can be introduced with the case of one courageous printer. On Sunday, the seventeenth of November, 1734, the German emigrant John Peter Zenger was arrested and imprisoned on a warrant from Governor Crosby and the council of New York, "for printing and publishing several seditious libels" in The New York Weekly Journal. The Governor and council then ordered the mayor and magistrates to attend to the "burning by the common hangman, or whipper, near the pillory, the libelous papers." The mayor's office would not obey the order and the papers were therefore burnt by order of the Governor. John Peter Zenger remained in prison until the next term and was denied the use of pen, ink and paper and the conversation of his friends. Zenger being put to trial pleaded not guilty. The printing and publishing of the papers were acknowledged by Zenger's counsel, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, who offered the truth as evidence. This the court would not admit. The judges observed that the jury might find Zenger to have printed and published the papers in question, and leave it to the court to determine whether they were libelous. Hamilton remarked to the jury, that they might do so, but they had a right, beyond all dispute, to judge of the law as well as the fact. The jury having retired a short time, returned with a verdict of not guilty, to the great mortification of the court, and of all Zenger's prosecutors; but which was received by the audience with great bursts of applause, concluding with three cheers. The next day Zenger was released from prison, having been confined for eight months. (1)

The precedent for citizen rights implied in this case were to be formally expressed on December 15, 1791, when ten amendments to the Constitution were ratified by eleven of the thirteen original states; the most important to us as printers being the First:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievance.

What this meant was that American printers were, in principle, free to print anything that criticized their government, even to the point of being annoying, offensive or seditious. Of course, all this fine talk didn't amount to a hill of beans until the American Civil Liberties Union, founded in 1920 by Roger Baldwin, became the advocate of First Amendment rights. A few renowned examples will serve to illustrate:

When Tennessee's new law prohibiting the teaching of evolution became effective in March of 1925 the ACLU at once sought a test of the statute's attack on free speech and secured John Thomas Scopes, a science teacher, as a plaintiff. William Jennings Bryan, three times the Democratic candidate for President and a rock-ribbed fundamentalist, volunteered to serve as chief counsel for the prosecution; Clarence Darrow, a member of the ACLU's National Committee and an agnostic, headed the volunteer defense team. Scopes was convicted and fined one hundred dollars. On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme court upheld the statute but reversed the conviction, which made it impossible to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The trial, however, played a major part in hastening the departure of religious indoctrination from the public schools.

In 1939, Mayor Frank "I Am the Law" Hague of Jersey City claimed the right to deny free speech to anyone he thought radical. Of his critics, he said: "We hear about constitutional rights and the free press. Every time I hear these words, I say to myself, 'That man is a Red, that man is a Communist.' You never hear a real American talk in that manner." The ACLU, together with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which was trying to organize in Jersey City, took Hague to the Supreme Court, which ruled that public places such as streets and parks belonged to the people, not the Mayor, and that their use for free speech and assembly, though it can be regulated, cannot be denied. (2)

On February 7, 1950, in Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy told the Republican Women's Club, "I have here in my hand a list of 205 . . . members of the Communist party . . . still working and shaping policy in the State Department." He offered no further proof and didn't show anybody the list. During the stifling era of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee the printer's calling was not perverted to serving the forces of darkness or anything quite that drastic, so much as it simply tried to avoid offending anybody. Dramatic change came in the 1960s, when citizens again awakened to their rights and duties.

On September 30, 1964, eight University of California, Berkeley, students were suspended indefinitely by Chancellor E. W. Strong for violating rules regulating the place, form and manner of speech by students while on the University campus. Trouble had begun when the President of the University, Clark Kerr, in response to charges that the University was being used as a staging ground for protests against HUAC and for civil rights activism, issued directives that forbad "student governments and their subsidiary agencies (to) take positions on any . . . off-campus issues without the express consent of the chief campus officer." That the property of the Regents was in fact public property was overlooked. After considerable uproar, including the arrest of some eight hundred students and University personnel on December 3, 1964, the Regents gave in and First Amendment rights were restored to the campus.

Largely as a consequence of '60s radicalism, the traditions of vicious lampoon, of cruel and clumsy but heartfelt invective, of the hysterical public critic of governmental policy, and of the seditious broadside thrive in my beloved city of Berkeley, where every wall and telephone pole drips with the latest gripes. This seems to me, no doubt from long exposure, to be normal and good. The laudable tradition of political polemic finds expression in the three far better printed, but equally hortatory, broadsides here reviewed.

John Risseeuw's Pardon Us (DeKooning and post-Modern Politics), on which depictions of Presidents Reagan and Bush present to us their posteriors as they grinningly emit engines of destruction in a cloud of afflatus, is out-and-out offensive, and is seemingly calculated to be so: just the sort of thing to render nice people radiant with disgust. I like it. The colors are dull--coprophilic, you might even say--and though the printing is unimpeachable, the broadside has an aura of nastiness; the sort of libelous, vulgar thing that latter-day government censors would perhaps like to see "burned by the common hangman." (They'd like to see the common hangman back, too--ah, those dear, dead days.) But the defense of Pardon Us, as of Zenger's New York Weekly Journal, is that what it says is true.

The stench of arms buildup is echoed in the dissonant Plutonium (PU...U Stink) ; though unconventionally for Fine Print fare produced by a combination of letterpress and silkscreen, Plutonium emphasizes how closely to the brink we stand. Plutonium handsomely recalls the similarly serigraphed style of Italian artist Eduardo Paolozzi, including references to Walt Disney characters, here with the visual pun of Pluto romping across the top of the image. Harsh, vibrating colors demand action and attention. A call to arms, a trumpet of doom.

Lest it be thought that polemic must eschew beauty, the last piece here discussed, Nancy Davis' sorrowfully lovely Elegy for the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, is technically the best printing in the exhibition. (Indeed, without Peter Koch's masterful presswork, the entire effort would fail.) The integration of poetry, text, design and subject, discussing the extinction of an avian subspecies through bureaucratic clumsiness and simple, understandable human mistakes is not strident, just sad. The mass of text that calmly presents the history of this humble creature's destruction is set on edge (as indeed it should set our teeth) and printed in overly long lines; it is hard to read--too much trouble to read, really. In this, it provides a brilliant metaphor for the inadvertent processes of pollution, neglect and error that lie at the center of ecological disaster: it's all too much trouble, too much hassle to do anything; it's easier to drift along, closing our eyes to consequences.

Just as Alan Lomax trudged from rural shanty to country church, patiently recording American folk music before the onslaught of civilization wiped it out, so has this bird's song been here preserved in one of Luis Baptista's sonograms. Looking at the printed representation, though it may speak volumes to the educated eye, is something like looking at a phonograph record without being able to play it; it's nothing whatever like "the Dusky's singing [which] began each year in mid-February or early March from perches atop the salt-marsh vegetation or else on the wing." The bird is dead with all its unhatched progeny, this broadside emphasizes, and its music is dead, and so will we be if we continue as we have begun.

The First Amendment, refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and of tyrants, grants us the right to speak; as printers and citizens we have an obligation both to speak and to act when demagogues and fools endanger our welfare and liberty.


(1) Excerpted and paraphrased from The History of Printing in America, Isaiah Thomas, Weathervane Books, New York, MCMLXX; pp. 486 - 491   RETURN TO PLACE

(2) Abstracted from the ACLU's 1984-1985 annual report.  RETURN_TO_PLACE

Left graphic Small button graphic  
  The Broadside as Polemic  
  Small button graphic Right Graphic
Previous Article This Article    Next Article
  Return to   A - B   Index