The sub-committee was charged with investigating communist infiltration in the entertainment industry in New York. Seeger’s testimony led to his conviction for contempt of Congress. According to the appellate court, the sub-committee asked Seeger about a concert he gave in Allerton, some years before. Here’s how the court characterized the question and answer:
"May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?" (Count 1), to which he gave a completely nonresponsive and irrelevant answer which apparently was a prepared statement he was determined to make regardless of the question:
"I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this."
This response was mentioned in many of the tributes to Pete Seeger today.
However, as the appellate court observed, Seeger was not asked about his associations, philosophical, religious, or political beliefs—he was asked a factual question: was the Allerton Section a section of the communist party?
What’s wrong with that question? It bothers us because we feel Congress overstepped its bounds by prying into people’s business that was none of their damn business. We agree with Seeger that these are improper questions to be asked of any American under compulsion.
Yet sometimes people are given power to pry into our personal business. We similarly bristle when confronted by border agents, or police officers. “Where were you?” “Whom did you visit?” None of your damn business, we want to say, although it’s ill advised.
President Clinton was in a similar situation during his deposition in the Paula Jones case. Paula Jones had brought a civil suit for sexual harassment, dating back to Clinton’s time as governor. In the meantime, Clinton was president and there was the Lewinsky affair. “Improper sexual relations,” a semen stained blue dress, politically motivated friends (Linda Tripp), and a special prosecutor hanging about. The information made its way to Paula Jones’ attorneys.
When confronted with the Lewinsky affair in the Jones case, Clinton lied in his deposition. We understand the impulse: none of your damn business! Except we don’t have that option in a deposition. All we can do is fess up, not answer and risk sanctions, evade, dissemble, or lie. It’s not a pleasant choice. Clinton was cornered by unsavory dishonorable political opponents and he opted to lie. His action was understandable (that’s why the public stayed with him). But his action was not honorable.
Seeger was also cornered by unsavory politicians. Their investigation was not an honorable or wise activity, and it had needlessly harmed hundreds of people for more than a decade. Seeger opted to risk contempt. It was political protest; it was honorable.
Seeger was charged with ten counts of contempt, and convicted by a jury for not answering the questions. The trial court judge, no friend of justice or good sense, refused to stay the one year sentence pending an appeal. However, the court of appeal granted the stay, and found a way to let Seeger off on a technicality. The indictment, they said, did not adequately plead, and the trial did not adequately prove the sub-committee’s authority to ask its questions. It was a Solomonic decision. The court found a way to do justice. It’s what courts do when they work well—they find a way to do justice.
Seeger acted honorably, took his chances, and the court did right by him. It was a good chapter in a long and excellent life.