Silence Pesky Free Speech
Mon., Oct. 31 2011
Dear John F. Kennedy Library Foundation:
Good move on blowing off the Sixth Floor Museum and executive director Nicola Longford regarding her plans for a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza. Believe me: You don't want to touch this gang with a 10-foot pole.
According to a story in this morning's Dallas Morning News, Longford and her assassination museum "are planning to take over commemoration activities" at Dealey Plaza in 2013. Their avowed aim, The News says, is to "avoid the carnival atmosphere that has often prevailed at previous anniversaries on the plaza."
Yeah. Let me tell you about that. There will be a hearing in federal court this Friday on another attempt to avoid a carnival atmosphere in Dealey Plaza -- that attempt being the city's decades-long goon-style campaign of intimidation against best-selling author Robert Groden. Groden has been hauled into court 81 times by his own count, including at least one tough session in jail, for the offense of selling books and tapes and speaking his mind about the assassination in Dealey Plaza.
More than 80 times the city has attempted to shut down Groden's exercise of free speech in Dealey Plaza. They have been tossed out of court by their own municipal judges every single time. Groden finally decided to sue in order in preserve the right of free speech and assembly for himself and all people in this very important place, a national landmark.
In The News story today, Longford is quoted as saying, "We have reserved Dealey Plaza for that date [November 22, 2013]. I think, for the 50th anniversary, we have an opportunity to offer a dignified, appropriate event for the city of Dallas."
So, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation: I ask you to think about this. What does that mean, "take over?" How do you "take over" a national landmark with the avowed aim of controlling speech there?
I spoke this morning with Groden's lawyer Bradley Kizzia, who said he had never heard of anyone taking over Dealey Plaza in order to prevent other people from coming there and doing whatever they want to do within the law.
"It's a federal national historic landmark," he said. "I doubt that that entity [the museum] can legally do that. They sure shouldn't be able to do that, to preclude the access of other citizens seeking to exercise their First Amendment right. That sounds very troubling to me."
I talked to Groden as well. He scoffed at the idea that the museum had even contacted you about participating. I'm sure you know who Mr. Groden is -- proprietor at one point of the world's most authoritative film and photographic library on the assassination. He told me he has contacted members of the Kennedy family in the past on various issues and that they have shown no interest in Dealey Plaza or what goes on there.
It sounds from the story in The News, that you, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, feel the same way. Longford is quoted as saying: "I don't think the Kennedy family has changed their stand."
No kidding. Why did she even ask? I have a call in to her about it, of course, but based on past behavior I would guess she will not return my call. So I am left to wonder what is it that she does not get about this situation?
Groden gets it. He understands that Dealey Plaza is not and will never be a memorial to the life of JFK, no matter what ludicrous efforts the Sixth Floor Museum may expend to create such an absurdly euphemistic, historically irresponsible impression.
It's where he was killed. That's what's important about Dealey Plaza. It was the scene of brutal catastrophe. What, we might ask, can be dignified about an assassination? JFK's murder here, even after half a century, is still an ongoing source of anger, confusion and anxiety in our nation. The only way for Dallas to even approach expiating its own role would be to stop trying to stifle debate in the place where it happened.
Let's talk about this whole thing of planning two years ahead to take over Dealey Plaza to make sure everything will be "dignified." I think you should put it in a certain context. On June 13, 2010, Dallas Police arrested and jailed Groden. Groden alleges that the arrest came about at the request of Sixth Floor Museum security personnel. That's a fact at issue in the ongoing lawsuit. The museum has refused to comment when I have tried to ask them about it in the past.
But I ask you this, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation: Have you ever even been accused of getting authors thrown in jail? What is dignified, pray tell, about slapping the cuffs on a late-middle-aged scholar, tossing him the back seat of a cop car and hauling him off to the slammer? And by the way, when is the last time you tried to take over a prominent public space in order to control speech here?
A quarter century ago I interviewed the late Stanley Marcus about the assassination, and he told me he thought Dallas bore significant blame. He said the city's fault was for refusing to recognize the festering climate of extremism in its own backyard before the assassination. If anything, Longford's impulse to clamp down on freedom of expression on the anniversary is of a cloth with the same phenomenon Marcus described a half-century before. If someone were going to write a senior thesis about it at Harvard, he or she might even call it "Why Dallas Slept."
If I were you, I wouldn't come to Dealey Plaza until Dallas wakes up.