One in a series of interviews with principals involved in First Amendment-related U.S. Supreme Court cases (see “SCT interview” keyword below).
The First Amendment still represents the key to positive social change in the United States, says Julian Bond, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“The First Amendment means everything to me,” he told the First Amendment Center Online in a recent interview. Bond knows firsthand the protections offered by the First Amendment both as a leader of the civil rights movement and as a prevailing litigant before the United States Supreme Court.
“I was intimately involved in the civil rights movement which was built on the First Amendment right to speak and protest,” he says. “Without those rights of free speech and the right to protest, the movement would not have accomplished what it did.”
In its 1966 decision Bond v. Floyd, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Bond could not be excluded from membership in the Georgia House of Representatives because he had criticized the federal government’s policy on Vietnam.
“I think that my case was a further extension of that First Amendment and a vindication of my rights,” Bond says, referring to his victory before the United States Supreme Court in December 1966.
On June 15, 1965, Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives from the 136th House District, defeating another African-American, Malcolm Dean. Bond says that his election and the election of other African-American representatives was the result of a federal court’s forcing Georgia to reapportion its legislative voting districts. “You have to understand that this was the first time we had representatives in the state congress since the time of Reconstruction,” he explains.
Even though Bond won his election and took an oath of office, his colleagues voted 184-12 to exclude him. Bond says that he received votes only from the other African-Americans recently elected and from one or two white representatives, one of whom later lost his seat because he had voted for Bond.
Many representatives, led by Rep. James “Sloppy” Floyd, argued that certain comments made by Bond and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee showed him unfit to fulfill his oath.
At that time, Bond was communications director of SNCC. In January 1966, SNCC issued a statement on U.S. policy toward Vietnam. The statement read in part:
We question the ability and even the desire of the United States government to guarantee free elections abroad. We maintain that our country’s cry of ‘preserve freedom in the world’ is a hypocritical mask behind which it squashes liberation movements which are not bound, and refuse to be bound by the expediencies of United States cold war policies.
We recoil with horror at the inconsistency of a supposedly ‘free’ society where responsibility to freedom is equated with the responsibility to lend oneself to military aggression. We take note of the fact that 16 per cent of the draftees of this country are Negroes called on to stifle the liberation of Viet Nam, to preserve a ‘democracy’ which does not exist for them at home.
Though Bond had not drafted the statement, he had endorsed it in a press interview, stating: “I think it is sort of hypocritical for us to maintain that we are fighting for liberty in other places and we are not guaranteeing liberty to citizens inside the continental United States.”
“I knew my comments would be controversial, but I never anticipated that they would lead to what actually happened,” he says. Floyd and 74 other House members challenged Bond’s membership in the Georgia House, calling Bond’s statements and that of SNCC unpatriotic, “reprehensible,” and tending “to bring discredit and disrespect of the House.”
Asked whether the actions of his former colleagues were racially motivated, Bond responds: “I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the opposition to me and my comments was largely racially motivated.”
Bond filed a federal lawsuit, contending that the challenge to his taking his House seat violated his First Amendment free-expression rights and was racially motivated. A panel of three federal judges voted 2-1 against Bond.
The majority reasoned that Bond’s right to dissent as a private citizen was limited by his decision to join the Georgia House of Representatives. The majority wrote: “The call to action, and this is what we find to be a rational basis for the decision which denied Mr. Bond his seat, is that language which states that SNCC supports those men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft.”
Chief Judge Elbert Tuttle dissented, finding that the House did not have the power under state constitutional law to disqualify Bond. “I was surprised by the lower court decision,” Bond says now. Ironically, one of the two judges that voted against him was Judge Griffin Bell, who later became President Jimmy Carter’s attorney general. “Griffin Bell later apologized to me for that decision,” Bond says.
Bond appealed directly to the court of last resort — the United States Supreme Court.
Supreme Court decision
On Dec. 5, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower court decision and ruled in Bond’s favor.
The state argued that it was justified in requiring a higher standard of loyalty from a state representative than a private citizen. The Supreme Court disagreed, writing that by taking an oath a legislator does not forfeit his constitutional right to dissent and to speak out on public issues.
“The manifest function of the First Amendment in a representative government requires that legislators be given the widest latitude to express their views on issue of policy,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. “Just as erroneous statements must be protected to give freedom of expression the breathing space it needs to survive, so statements criticizing public policy and the implementation of it must be similarly protected.”
Bond welcomed the high court decision but was not surprised by it. “I always thought I was right and that I would be proven right.”
On his return to the Georgia Legislature, Bond says that he was “formally welcomed” by most of his colleagues. “Most of my colleagues were welcoming or at least formally welcoming after I was admitted after the Supreme Court decision,” Bond recalls. “I even had one colleague who had voted against me come up to me later and say, ‘What was that all about anyway?’ ”
“I just shrugged it off at the time, Bond says. “But I later thought: ‘If you didn’t know what the controversy was about, why did you vote against me?’ But I tell you one thing, James Floyd never spoke to me, not even once.”
Belief in First Amendment
Bond remains an ardent defender of the First Amendment, even for those with whom he disagrees. “The First Amendment must protect unpopular speakers,” he says. “You have to remember that my views and the civil rights movement were unpopular views. We must protect the unpopular views or we cannot protect the popular ones.”
Even though the First Amendment is often judged by some of the company it keeps, such as white supremacists or pornographers, Bond says it “still does” offer the key to social progress, just as it did during the civil rights movement.
“Any time someone carries a picket sign in front of the White House, that is the First Amendment in action,” he says. “Every time someone says ‘George Bush is an idiot’ or ‘Julian Bond is an idiot,’ that’s the First Amendment in action.”