History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  The Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial
Learn about the case — historical background and documents

Media Coverage and Public Debates

During the Democratic National Convention of August 1968, network television coverage of the confrontations between demonstrators and Chicago police shocked the nation and prompted investigations by the city of Chicago, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the President’s National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. The media images of the violence disrupting the political process also intensified demands for the criminal prosecution of the police and the demonstrators. The subsequent trial of the demonstrators, closely followed by the media, became the center of a national debate on the fairness of the federal judicial system and on the culture of dissent that arose in the 1960s.

Media coverage had been central to the debate over the demonstrations surrounding the convention, and it would be a subject of controversy leading up to and throughout the Chicago Seven trial. On the first anniversary of the convention riots and weeks before the opening of the trial, Tom Wicker wrote in the
New York Times “The miracle of television made it visible to all—pierced, at last, the isolation of one America from the other, exposed to each the power it faced.”

The role of the media in the Chicago violence was a polarizing issue. In the days following the convention, Mayor Daley demanded prime time on each of the television networks for a response to what he characterized as distorted coverage of the police violence. Several months later, the Walker Report’s review of police violence concluded that “newsmen and photographers were singled out for assault, and their equipment deliberately damaged.” Shortly after the report was published, U.S. Attorney Thomas Foran alleged that the television networks had staged shots of the demonstrators’ injuries at the hands of the police.

As the trial began in September 1969, the district court for the Northern District of Illinois attempted to manage the expected media crush. Chief Judge William Campbell prohibited cameras and sound equipment from all but one room of the courthouse, and Judge Richard Austin dismissed a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the ban. Austin announced that “the quickest way to end demonstrations is to have all cameras five blocks from the building.” Campbell denied a request from over 100 attorneys to move the trial to a larger courtroom that could accommodate more of the press and hopeful spectators who lined up daily outside the federal courthouse, and the U.S. court of appeals upheld Campbell’s decision. Judge Hoffman set aside a section of the courtroom for the press with credentials, but he prohibited them from wearing press credentials in the courtroom, explaining that he didn’t want his courtroom to look like “a furniture convention.” The limited access did nothing to deter press interest in the trial, and around twenty news outlets, including newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, assigned reporters to cover the full length of the proceedings.

Everyone in the courtroom took notice of the daily coverage of the trial by national print and broadcast media. The defendants’ antics and the long list of celebrity witnesses guaranteed an audience well beyond the judge and jury. The defense held daily press conferences during the lunch break until the judge warned them not to comment on the trial in public. Judge Hoffman proved to be equally adept at attracting press comment, and the chief judge of the court later acknowledged that Judge Hoffman “loved the publicity, bad as it was.”

The defendants cultivated media coverage outside of the courtroom in their efforts to convince the public that the court proceedings amounted to a political rather than a criminal trial. At night defendants spoke to community meetings and attended fundraisers held by wealthy supporters. One weekend, the defendants traveled to Washington to join a half-million people at a rally against the Vietnam War. Their public appearances could have a less serious side as well. On a visit to Chicago’s Second City comedy club, Abbie Hoffman responded to an audience request with a 45-minute satire of Judge Hoffman. In December 1969, the defendants posed in a group photo for a holiday card that urged recipients to “Make a New Year’s Resolution—Join the Conspiracy.”

Washington Post writer Nicholas Van Hoffman noted within the first weeks of the trial that the proceedings had none of the expected characteristics of a criminal trial. “No one here at the Great Conspiracy Trial thinks of its outcome in terms of guilt or innocence. You are for the government or for the defendants.” A Chicago Sun-Times reporter found the trial “more sideshow than criminal proceeding.” Outside the courtroom, the cultural and political clashes of convention week played on as background for the trial. A series of protests and demonstrations, most of them small and many barely related to the trial, appeared outside the courthouse. The violence of convention week threatened to reappear in October 1969 during the self-styled “Days of Rage” organized by the Weatherman group and other radical groups emerging from the break up of the Students for a Democratic Society. Protestors clashed with Chicago police and smashed store windows, at one point attempting to reach the hotel where Judge Hoffman and his wife lived.

Very different groups of protestors approached the court to protect defendants’ right to representation. When Judge Hoffman threatened to hold the pretrial team of defense lawyers in contempt, nationally prominent lawyers and law professors, including future federal judges, converged on the courthouse to demand a mistrial.

The gagging of Bobby Seale, Judge Hoffman’s consistently pro-government rulings, and the ill-defined requirements for conviction on the conspiracy charge led many in the press to question the impartiality of the judicial system. Tom Wicker of the New York Times asked if the burden of proof “any longer means anything.” J. Anthony Lukas noted the many observers “who view what they regard as the excesses on both sides as damaging to the American judicial process and raising questions as to how a court can effectively dispense justice in cases which arouse such strong political passions.” The defendants were only too willing to foster these doubts about justice in the federal courts. Rennie Davis said that “Judge Hoffman presides in every court in this country.” Alternatively, the letters to the editors of Chicago newspapers indicated popular support for Judge Hoffman.

The guilty verdict for five of the defendants brought familiar popular protests, including a crowd of 5,000 outside the Chicago courthouse and another demonstration in Washington, D.C., where more than 100 people were arrested. The several appeals that brought reversals of the convictions and a rebuke of Judge Hoffman were prominently reported by the national press, but the popular interest in the case never again rose to the levels seen during the trial phase. The proceedings in the court of appeals had none of the dramatic interest of the trial, and, perhaps more important, the protest movement evident at the Democratic convention declined following the killings at Kent State University in the spring of 1970.


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