1993 Chutzpah of the Year: The envelope, please

January 05, 1994|By Gregory P. Kane

NOW that 1993 has drawn to a close, it is time for my annual Chutzpah Awards.

But this year's awards are different. In the past I awarded 10 Chutzpahs in ascending order of gall and audacity, but this year there is only one winner.

Not because there were no other worthy candidates. There were competitors aplenty: the jury in the Reginald Denny trial being perhaps the most notable. Rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg -- whose songs try to convince us that he is a fearless macho gangsta rapper ready to cold smoke anybody stupid enough to "step to" him, wimped out when hung with a murder rap and tried to hide behind the justice system by claiming that he was "innocent until proven guilty." (Interesting, isn't it, that he didn't simply say, "I didn't do it"?)

But 1993's winner was so brazen that he left even Mr. Dogg in his exhaust. My awardee this year may well redefine the contest. I may not have to give out Chutzpahs again this century.

So it is with a drum roll and admiration that I salute . . . lawyer Anthony Griffin, who saw no conflict in being the pro bono counsel for the Texas NAACP and a civil liberties lawyer for a grand dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan based in Waco, Texas.

Mr. Griffin was asked by the Texas Civil Liberties Union back in May to represent grand dragon Michael Lowe. The Texas state's attorney's office had asked the Klan "to turn over its membership lists and secret bylaws for an investigation into the use of threats and harassment to drive blacks out of a housing project," according to an Associated Press story.

Mr. Griffin agreed to take Mr. Lowe's case, using some fascinating arguments as justification.

"It is hard . . . to give free for those we hate," he was quoted as saying in another news story. "But it is what the Bill of Rights is all about. It is to protect those we hate, those who stand up on street corners and bother us in public."

Spoken like a man who genuflects whenever the Bill of Rights is mentioned. But I beg to differ with the learned attorney on this point. The Bill of Rights is not to protect those we hate. It is to protect civilized people should the uncivilized ever come to power. It is not meant, I contend, to protect barbarians. It is certainly not meant to give carte blanche to those who would use murder, terror and intimidation to achieve their ends, and I would say the sordid history of the KKK qualifies it to be lumped into that category.

But that is not why Mr. Griffin wins a Chutzpah. His philosophy is clearly not in accord with mine, as it is reflected in the above quote and this one:

"I don't like the Klan, but if I don't stand up and defend the Klan's right to free speech, my right to free speech will be gone."

Actually, history shows that the most widespread violation of civil and human rights in the history of the United States occurred to the black people in the South shortly after the Republican Party left them to the tender mercies of the KKK after the election of 1876. Before then, President Grant, according to historian Philip Foner, used martial law and the suspension of habeas corpus to hold Klan terror in check.

Thus there is ample historical evidence to show that restricting the rights of terrorist organizations does not endanger the rights of the rest of us. But letting such groups go unchecked ultimately can lead to the curtailment of rights for the rest of us. Lest anyone forget, the KKK gave grief not only to African-Americans, but to Jews, Catholics, labor organizers and whites who flunked the racial loyalty litmus test.

In yet another quote from the above-mentioned AP story, Mr. Griffin said he was honored to take Mr. Lowe's case, "not because he supports the Klan," the story said, "but because it means defending the First Amendment, which in the past has been used to protect the NAACP, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan."

Here again we see Mr. Griffin's inability to distinguish between First Amendment rights for those advocating peaceful change -- the NAACP and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- and a group of thugs who simply want to hide behind the Bill of Rights whenever their criminality is investigated.

Mr. Farrakhan, of course, is another matter. There have been some things Mr. Farrakhan has said that I loved. There have been other times when I wish someone had slapped a muzzle on him, such as in 1964 when he wrote that Malcolm X was "worthy of death." For several years now, Mr. Farrakhan has been a finalist in the Chutzpah competition.

But none of that is why Mr. Griffin wins this award. He wins it for the statement he made about the response to his decision to defend Mr. Lowe.

"I've been called everything from Judas to Clarence Thomas," he lamented.

What did he think we were going to say to him -- "Right on, brother man"?

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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