[sixties-l] Bill Epton, Former PLP Activist, Dies

From: Jay Moore (pieinsky@igc.org)
Date: Sun Feb 03 2002 - 14:28:54 EST

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    William Epton, 70, Is Dead; Tested Free Speech Limits

    February 3, 2002


    William Epton, a Maoist agitator who made a fiery
    street-corner speech during the Harlem riots of the summer
    of 1964 and as a result became the first person convicted
    of criminal anarchy since the Red Scare of 1919, died in a
    Manhattan hospital on Jan. 23. He was 70 and lived in

    Eleanor Jackson Piel, his lawyer in his marathon legal
    battles, said the cause was stomach cancer.

    Mr. Epton's case drew wide attention as a test of the
    limits of free speech at a time when inner cities were
    erupting in violence. Was there a constitutional right to
    say, "Burn, baby, burn"? The answer, affirmed by New York's
    highest court, the Court of Appeals, in 1967, was no.

    But just two years later, the answer might have been yes.
    Though in 1968 the United States Supreme Court refused to
    hear Mr. Epton's case because it was a state matter, the
    next year it used Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous
    phrase from the previous time the New York anarchy law had
    made it to the Supreme Court.

    In that case, Benjamin Gitlow was convicted for publishing
    a Communist manifesto; the Supreme Court upheld the verdict
    in 1919. But Holmes's dissent, saying that to be considered
    criminal, speech must present "a clear and present danger,"
    became the implicit law of the land. Holmes's language was
    even more explicit in the 1969 case, Brandenburg v. Ohio.
    The court held that the law was not violated unless someone
    advocated "imminent lawless action which is likely to

    Leon Friedman, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra
    Law School who uses Mr. Epton's case in his courses, said:
    "They changed the rules. Had the new rule been in effect,
    he probably would have won."

    The original New York State law on criminal anarchy was
    passed in 1902 in response to an attempt by the anarchist
    Johann Most to justify President William McKinley's

    Mr. Epton, an electrician at the time of the 1964 riots,
    was chairman of the Harlem branch of the Progressive Labor

    Mr. Epton's arrest followed speeches that he made during
    riots set off when a police officer, Lt. Thomas Gilligan,
    shot and killed a 15- year-old black youth, James Powell,
    on July 16, 1964. The officer was later exonerated. But the
    event led to a bloody race riot that later spread to the
    Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

    A grand jury indicted Mr. Epton on charges that his
    speeches kept the riot going. In one, which was secretly
    recorded by an undercover officer assigned to monitor the
    group, he said, "We're going to have to kill a lot of cops,
    a lot of the judges, and we'll have to go against their

    Sketchy evidence was also presented suggesting that Mr.
    Epton had directed riot gangs and given instructions for
    fire bombings. But although the Court of Appeals ruled that
    his speech was not protected by the First Amendment, it
    said the evidence offered to show that he had helped cause
    the riot was unconvincing. "There is no evidence here that
    the defendant or his alleged co-conspirators had any hand
    in causing the riots that began on the evening of July 18,
    1964," the court said. The appeals court did criticize him
    for preaching violence after the riot, which lasted one day
    in Harlem, but his lawyers contended that such speech had
    no role in inciting violence.

    William Leo Epton Jr. was born in Harlem on Jan. 17, 1932.
    Even as a high school student, he demonstrated for civil
    rights and helped organize unions. He was drafted into the
    Army and served in the Korean War.

    Over the years, he was a member of many leftist
    organizations, many of them ephemeral. He was a founder of
    the A. Philip Randolph Labor Council, a national
    organization opposing racial discrimination in labor

    A tall, slender man, he worked as a printer and as an
    information officer for the Board of Education after
    serving a year at the city jail on Rikers Island. He had
    been sentenced to one year for each count on which he was
    convicted, and served them concurrently.

    He is survived by his wife, Beryl; a son, William, of
    Manhattan; a daughter, Carol, of Augusta, Ga.; and three

    The state anarchy law under which he was convicted made it
    to the Supreme Court several additional times, but the
    justices again declined to hear the cases. The law was then
    rewritten to include only rebellion against state
    government, making it even more difficult to get a federal
    ruling on such cases, said Ms. Piel, who went on to
    represent Black Panthers in a similar case.

    Mr. Friedman suggested that Mr. Epton was convicted mainly
    because of his words.

    "The phrase about killing judges, I think, was a big
    mistake," he said.


    Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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