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Navy Will Court-Martial Roger Priest
The Navy announced August 28 that it is continuing its campaign to silence Roger Priest, editor of OM, The Liberation Newsletter. The Commandant of the Naval District of Washington, Rear Adm. George Koch, ordered a general court martial on 8 charges of soliciting members of the military to desert and commit sedition, urging insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty, and making statements disloyal to the United States.
Six other charges, involving disrespect toward the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rep. Mendel Rivers and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and violation of a regulation requiring a disclaimer that view presented in OM were not those of the Navy, were dropped by Koch.
The charges against Priest all stem from material published in OM, and follow on an incredible campaign by the Navy which included assigning 25 agents to trail Priest and the inspection of garbage from his apartment for “incriminating” material. (See issues 3, 4 & 5 of the GI Press Service.)
“What we are left with are the real free speech issues,” said David Rein, Priest's attorney. “It is plain that the material in Priest's publication is neither directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action nor is it likely to incite or produce such action. The material quoted in the specification charging Priest with soliciting sedition is obviously nothing more than abstract rhetoric and cannot possibly be rationally construed as a serious request or advice to do anything. Moreover, since Priest's activities were all conducted off base in the form of a printed publication whose contents are no different than public newsstands throughout the country, there is no warrant or basis for applying a different rule to this publication than is applied to publications generally.”
On September 5, Priest gained the support of Senator Charles Goodell of New York. Goodell issued a statement saying that ten days before the charges were preferred he had urged Navy Secretary John Chafee to give the Priest case “very careful personal attention before embarrassment and discredit to the Navy result.
“My basic concern is the question of the constitutional rights of a man in the service of the United States.
“I wish to emphasize that I am not referring to a case involving insubordination of an enlisted man to his superior officer. I am referring to the rights of free speech and free press guaranteed to every citizen and certainly to a soldier in his activities off base, with his own funds and on his own time.
“Given the fact that free expression of opinion is basic to our system, it seems especially inappropriate that Seaman Priest should be facing such serious charges for acting in a way which is protected by the Constitution of the United States.
“It is disturbing to me that individual commanders throughout the service continue to have the discretion to determine what the permissible limits of dissent may be.
“When Roger Priest enlisted in the Navy he accepted certain well-defined responsibilities as a soldier. He did not, however, forfeit his constitutional rights as a citizen of the United States.”
Priest's court martial has been set for October l, but his attorney announced that he will seek to have trial postponed until November 4.
Publicity for the defense ef fort is being handled by Serviceman's Link to Peace, 1029 Vermont Ave. NW, room 200, Washington, D.C. 20005.
GI Press Service, vol. 1, no. 7