By Craig Simpson
The Washington Free Press, an alternative newspaper of the late 1960s, published for only three years. Its legacy was an epic clash with local authorities that ended in a blaze of glory as the tabloid’s battle against suppression gutted Maryland’s McCarthy-era anti-subversive law and helped roll back the definitions of obscenity.
Its greatest victories and defeats came after Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James H. Pugh ordered a grand jury investigation into the newspaper in March 1969 for advocating, “the destruction of the state and destruction between the schools of this county and the duly constituted law enforcement agencies thereof.”
The Washington Free Press started as an intercollegiate paper but began publishing as an alternative newspaper on a two-week basis in March 1967. The issues contained New Left, Old Left, pacifist and anarchist opinions and information mixed with mysticism, advocacy of psychedelic drugs, cultural writings, artwork and poetry.
Alternative newspapers of various stripes were published in practically every sizable city and town in the country during a time when black militancy, the “counter-culture” and anti-Vietnam war protests and were sweeping the nation.
The Free Press was sold at head shops and other sympathetic outlets, but most of the 20,000 copies each issue were sold on street corners by individuals who paid ten cents per copy to the Free Press and sold the paper for 20 cents. Often the newspapers were advanced to sellers who were expected to repay out of their proceeds. Both display and personal advertisements also helped finance the paper. Staff turnover was constant, the newspaper paid only a small stipend per week and most staff lived communally.
The paper began to directly challenge authorities in 1968 when a majority of the staff embraced the Youth International Party politics of cultural and political confrontation.
Newspaper More Provocative
There was always police harassment of street corner sellers and two people hawking the Free Press were arrested for selling obscene material in Rehoboth, DE in 1967, but authorities largely ignored the newspaper.
However, by 1969 the Free Press published the names, addresses and photos of alleged undercover agents, regularly used four letter words and called police pigs. They published articles on how to grow marijuana and wrote about revolution. In the process, they developed a large following among high school students.
Police followed up by arresting David Kramer for selling the paper outside of Northwood High School a week later. They charged Kramer with not having a permit for sales within 500 feet of a school. However, charges were quickly dismissed against Kramer, the son of Montgomery County council member Rose Kramer, when a judge ruled that the permit requirement was aimed at food trucks and similar businesses.
Judge Pugh Orders Grand Jury Investigation
Undaunted by this legal setback, the county pressed on. On March 3, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James H. Pugh, citing the 1949 Maryland “Ober Law,” told a grand jury it was a felony to commit “any act intended to overthrow, destroy or alter, or to assist in the overthrow, destruction or alteration of” a political subdivision of the state “by revolution, force or violence.”
He told the grand jury that if they found the Free Press had violated this law, they should, “indict the staff, publishers and printers of the paper,” according to the Washington Post.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) quickly denounced the Free Press investigation.
Pugh was already a well-known opponent of social justice advocates. In 1960, Pugh imposed fines on five people convicted of trespassing during the picketing demanding integration of Glen Echo Amusement Park telling them, “Imagine, college students from New York and college students from other places trying to force your ideas on the way other people run their businesses.”
He presided over the 1961 rape trial of James & John Giles, after impanelling an all-white jury. The Giles brothers were accused of raping a white woman. After they were convicted, Pugh sentenced the brothers to death. The case went to the US Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial. After a six-year fight by their defense committee and lawyers, prosecutors dropped charges against the Giles brothers in 1967.
Pugh also sentenced a Chevy Chase bookstore owner to six months in jail in 1961 for selling a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, telling Samuel Yudkin he had “flagrantly violated the laws of Maryland.”
When a District man came before him in 1965 for stealing $461 worth of lead bars, Pugh served notice that “the overflow of the criminal element from Washington” can expect harsh sentences.
“This court wants you to know that when criminals such as you come out here to Montgomery County, MD, you are going to be dealt with severely,” he told Eddie Terrell as he sentenced him to a 10-year prison term.
The Free Press Raises the Ante
Free Press responded to the grand jury investigation in its March 16-30 edition by publishing a seven page attack on the judicial system that began with a relatively small caricature of Pugh masturbating while sitting behind a dais where instruments of torture hung. The drawing was entitled “He’ Comm D’Judje” (sic).
One of the articles specifically criticized Pugh and printed his unlisted phone number and Chevy Chase address advising readers to call or visit him.
The County responded March 21 by having police seize 100 copies of the paper at an Empire Records store on Old Georgetown Road for obscenity. Owner Jim Seward was told that the paper was “no longer approved,” according to the Washington Post.
Police Arrest Dillingham
That evening Montgomery County activist J. Brinton “Brint” Dillingham began selling the newspaper outside of the Bethesda police station after hearing of the Empire Records confiscation. Police quickly arrested Dillingham and a 17-year old companion and charged them with possession of obscene literature. Dillingham was released on bail and a trial date set for April 17.
The Free Press’ printer refused to run another issue and the paper scrambled to find a way to publish the paper before securing a New York print shop. The delay and subsequent increase in cost forced the paper to publish its next issue two weeks late.
April 4, more than thirty demonstrators picketed Judge Pugh’s home. Joe Forer, a longtime attorney of left-leaning defendants who also led the successful appeal of the Giles brothers’ conviction, filed suit in federal court to overturn the sections of the “Ober law” cited by Judge Pugh.
On April 7, Dillingham was tried in a courtroom packed with more than 100 supporters, including one wearing a copy of the Pugh cartoon pinned to his shirt.
During the trial, Forer introduced evidence that Phillip Roth’s best selling novel Portnoy’s Complaint containing explicit sexuality was sold at a Walden Book Store managed by Montgomery County state’s attorney William Linthicum’s wife. Linthicum, who was prosecuting the case, stipulated that he had no intention of prosecuting the store’s proprietor.
Forer noted that he believed the only reason this case was being tried is because it lampooned a judge.
People’s Court Judge Willard J. Nalls convicted Dillingham of passing out obscenity and sentenced him to six months in jail. Nalls told Dillingham, “I don’t think you have to be an art critic or write for a newspaper to determine whether something is obscene. I think this picture falls clearly within that language.”
Judge Nalls set a $5,000 bond for Dillingham prompting Forer to respond, “You’re kidding! I’ve seen murder cases where it wasn’t that high. As Dillingham was being led away, Dillingham supporter Richard Crouch began rhythmic clapping. Nalls shouted, “You’re in contempt of court!” Dillingham supporter Michael Mage responded, “You’re in contempt of us.” Nails cited and fined both for contempt of court.
A Montgomery County Bar Association resolution condemned the Free Press and supported Judge Pugh saying they were “…outraged at the vilification of a member of our bench.“
Bar president Richard B. Latham, went on to say, “It is inconsistent for persons to flout some parts of our Constitution and then seize upon other parts of the very same Constitution for their protection.” Forer responded, “They talk about flouting the Constitution. My opinion is that the constitutional rights of those who publish and distributed the Free Press have been grossly flouted.”
Meanwhile nearly every jurisdiction in the Washington area began a concerted drive against the Free Press.
The Montgomery County Council passed a resolution to investigate Free Press distribution in the high schools. Prince George’s state’s attorney Arthur “Bud” Marshall called for an injunction against Free Press distribution to anyone under 18.
On April 8, a Washington, DC Free Press salesman was arrested at 16th & K Streets NW after being stopped by police. His crime was using obscenity when he told an officer, “Arrest me if you want to, I’m tired of this s__t.” A Kensington youth was charged with possession of obscenity when police stopped him for a traffic violation and found two copies of the paper in his car on April 11.
The Paper Fires a Second Round
The Free Press responded with perhaps its biggest “stick in the eye” when in published its April 16-30, 1969 edition. It placed a large, self-censored version of the Pugh cartoon on the front cover as a “connect the dots” illustration along with the admonition:
Hey, gang! Connect the numbered dots and display your artwork at the institution of your choice. (Evaporated milk and a sponge will do the job.) The name of the game is “Subversion-Perversion”.
The District opened an investigation of the paper for operating without a corporation franchise license. The District police carried out a court-ordered search of the newspaper office citing the Free Press publication of excerpts of documents obtained during a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) takeover of the Sino-Soviet studies offices at George Washington University. Police found nothing.
Two more Free Press peddlers were arrested in Salisbury, MD, April 26 for distribution of obscene material. District police arrested another two at 15th & New York Ave NW for vending without a license May 12.
Dillingham Repeatedly Arrested
Dillingham’s appeal of his obscenity conviction to Circuit Court was scheduled for June 9 where a trial by jury would take place. Dillingham operated Freedom House, a youth activities center located at 4927 Cordell Ave. in Bethesda as director of Compeers, a social action group. Police were determined to shut Freedom House and through the landlord had obtained an eviction notice.
Police began harassment of young people in the area of Freedom House on June 3 and continued for next three nights. On June 6 police arrested 21, including Dillingham, in front of the group’s house to “forestall vandalism” and for “loud noise, profanity and general disorder.” A spontaneous demonstration outside the Bethesda police station was staged by about 50 people as word spread throughout the county.
While the arrests were taking place in Bethesda, Detective Gabriel C. Lamastra, who originally arrested Dillingham March 21, appeared before the Society of the Holy Name at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville. Lamastra appealed to those present to attend Dillingham’s upcoming circuit court trial and passed out copies of the Free Press that contained the caricature of Judge Pugh masturbating. Lamastra was not arrested.
On June 7, Dillingham was arrested again when police confronted youths at a county parking garage across the street from Freedom House. Dillingham was charged with “failure to move off public property when ordered by a police officer.” In response, 75 young people marched on the Bethesda police station.
By the end of the week, Dillingham had been charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, creating a public nuisance and making excessive noise in addition to the failure to move charge.
Dillingham Re-Tried Before Jury for Obscenity
Dillingham’s re-trial in circuit court began on June 9. The cartoon was “a shameful and morbid interest in sex, nudity and excretion” and thereby aroused “prurient interest,” according to state witness Ralph P. Oropollo, a Kensington psychologist.
Defense witness Frank Getlein, an art critic for the Washington Star, testified that the caricature was “clearly a political attack on a political figure on the grounds that the severity of his decisions is related to a perverted sexual condition.”
The jury began deliberations after 10 pm on June 10 and continued for nearly 5 hours. The verdict of guilty was read at 3 am in front of several dozen Dillingham supporters who stayed through the night. Later that morning, a court ordered Freedom House evicted.
Dillingham’s bail of $5,000 was continued and his lawyers quickly set about appealing the verdict.
The conviction and sentence drew widespread condemnation in letters to the Washington Post. Many critics cited the disparity between Dillingham’s sentence and the June 1969 $300 fine given Prince George’s People’s Court Judge Richard E. Painter for breaking the nose of a woman and threatening her with a revolver.
Drive Against Paper Continues
However, the verdict spurred jurisdictions in the Washington area to raise the level of their own campaigns against the paper.
On June 19, two street distributors were arrested in Arlington, VA and charged with displaying obscene literature for a cartoon contained in the Free Press by Robert Crumb that was then being displayed in an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The following day, Fairfax, VA police arrested the owner of Discount Variety store after a police officer bought the paper. Billy Morrow was charged with distributing obscene literature.
District police arrested Brian Neville that evening at 2nd and Pennsylvania Ave SE after he sold two copies of the paper to a detective. Neville was also held on distribution of obscenity charges with a $1,000 bond.
On June 23, Prince George’s County police raided a College Park, MD store, seized 300 copies of the Free Press plus a “Wanted” poster of Jesus Christ. Lawrence Woodruff, owner of the Joint Possession, and a 17-year old employee were charged with selling obscene literature. Woodruff was also told he may be charged with “blasphemy.”
June 24, Alexandria, VA ordered police officers to arrest Free Press distributors. According to the Washington Post, police went to two stores where they believed the paper was sold but came up empty as the owners told them they no longer carried the paper due to legal concerns.
By July, the ACLU filed several suits in federal court to enjoin police in the Washington area from “harassing, intimidating, persecuting and attempting to suppress the publication” of the newspaper. One of the suits sought both compensatory and punitive damages.
Attempt to Suppress the Paper Take a Toll
The crusade against the Free Press was taking a toll on the paper. Printing and shipping the paper from New York added cost to an already precarious bottom line. The loss of advertisers, distributors and street sellers intimidated by the authorities’ campaign further cut into the finances of Free Press and the staff struggled to continue publishing.
The paper was further hurt by competition from the Quicksilver Times, a similar Washington area alternative paper, which began publishing in June 1969. Quicksilver’s politics differed from the Free Press in that it was more closely aligned with the Revolutionary Youth Movement faction of SDS. The Free Press was also impaired by internal staff disagreements.
However, the Free Press won its first victory in September when the Pugh-ordered grand jury probe ended with no indictments. The jury reviewed a number of documents and interviewed detective Lamastra, but concluded that criminal charges were not prudent.
In December 1969, the Free Press published what would turn out to be their last issue and reached an all time circulation high of 25,000.
In January the Free Press office was broken into and their files on undercover police officers were stolen while items of value were left alone. Holes were knocked through the wall of an adjacent men’s room to gain access. No arrests were made. The staff continued to struggle to put out another issue that would have covered the December 1969 Chicago police killing of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton.
On January 28, 1970, Prince George’s Judge Roscoe Parker convicted Woodruff of distributing obscene material telling him that the Free Press was a “piece of trash” that “should be banned.”
Parker went to proclaim that, “To say that this is art is ridiculous. It’s obnoxious, truly obnoxious (and) …repulsive to even suggest” that the cartoons were art. During the trial, Parker refused to allow a Prince George’s librarian to testify on community standards. The Hyattsville MD branch of the library had the Free Press on its open shelf in the adult section and two other branches subscribed to the paper.
Subversive Law Thrown Out
The Free Press won a resounding victory February 2 when a three judge federal court threw out most of Maryland’s “Ober law” and
criticized Judge Pugh. The court left standing only the provisions that dealt with actual acts of violence and overt acts, striking down any parts dealing with speech or membership.
In specifically rebuking Pugh, the court held that any indictments against the Free Press would have been unconstitutional, “based only on the facts submitted to the grand jury by Judge Pugh.” State Attorney General Francis Burch was quoted in the Washington Post saying that the “Ober law” was now “almost impotent.”
After nearly three months of struggling to overcome its financial problems, the Free Press officially announced they were unable to continue publishing in March 1970. The newspaper, however, continued to live and fight in the courts.
Dillingham Cleared of Obscenity
Dillingham received a birthday present July 15, 1970 when the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed his obscenity conviction for selling the Free Press.
Judge Charles A. Thompson said in the majority opinion, “Although Freudian concepts of sexual motivation for human conduct, as expressed by the cartoon, have come under fire recently, they are not so discredited that the Court could say those ideas are utterly without social worth.” The court also found that the caricature of Judge Pugh had not exceeded contemporary community standards and that it did not appeal to prurient interests.
At the time of the decision, Dillingham was continuing his fight against repression by running for Montgomery County Sheriff on a platform of disarming all law enforcement officers and freeing all political prisoners.
The Free Press continued its string of victories after its death when a three-judge federal panel invalidated requirements that determined who could sell newspapers on city streets. Fingerprinting had been one of the requirements to get a license. On February 12, 1971 the judges found the city’s bureau of licenses and inspections had “no appropriate standards” to determine who received licenses.
The ruling came over “Tasty Comix” that had originally been distributed as part of the Free Press, but continued to be suppressed as a separate publication on street corners after the Free Press ceased publication.
In August 1971, Federal District Judge Howard Corcoran declared a National Park Service rule that had been used as the basis to arrest street vendors of alternative newspapers unconstitutional. Corcoran ruled on a suit brought by the long dead Free Press that the rule was “overly broad” and had served as a prior restrain on free speech.
Corcoran warned police that “there should be no repetition of police activities” in which vendors were arrested for lacking a license to sell newspapers. Parks are “areas traditionally open to the public for the exercise of First Amendment rights…such parks as Dupont Circle, Farragut Square and Lafayette Square lie in the center of business activities…and are often the sites for demonstrations.”
Courts Rule Free Press Not Suppressed
The Free Press wasn’t the only newspaper targeted in that time period. The Quicksilver Times was declared obscene in February 1970 by a judge in St. Mary’s County, MD after Scott Bennett was arrested with 50 copies getting off a bus in Lexington Park. The Voice from the Mother Country was suppressed in May 1970 after an FBI raid on its offices ostensibly looking for Cathlyn Platt Wilkerson, a Weather Underground fugitive.
Black Panther Party newspaper vendors were also harassed. In August 1970, police arrested a man for selling the Black Panther paper in front of a Montgomery County drug store.
Despite winning in court on nearly every substantial issue, on May 16, 1973, the US Court of Appeals upheld a District Court ruling that metropolitan police had not consistently suppressed the Washington Free Press and Quicksilver Times newspapers, denying their request for claims and the ability to present additional evidence concerning police harassment.
In essence, the string of court rulings gave police the green light to suppress free speech and press activities in the moment while overturning those actions later after the threat had subsided. Nonetheless, the Free Press wins in court over repressive anti-subversive, obscenity and restrictive news distribution laws were real victories.
Author’s Notes: Many of the participants on the Free Press side of the fight are unknown. Many went by first names only. Among those who should be recognized are J. Brinton Dillingham, Joseph Forer and all the Free Press staffers including first among equals, Christopher Webber. Bill Blum, who founded the paper along with seven others, should also be acknowledged. And last but not least, all the Free Press vendors and street distributors who took the brunt of the harassment and arrests.
Most of the information in this posting came from the Washington Post, Star and Free Press and from court documents.
Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.