NEW YORK CITY, March 27--Balladeer Pete Seeger's long-delayed trial for contempt of Congress finally got under way today before Judge Murphy in a U.S. District Court here.
The ten-count indictment rises from Seeger's refusal to answer questions at a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation in August, 1955 of Communism in the entertainment industry.
In his opening statement, Seeger's attorney Carl Ross launched a wholesale attack on the Committee's unlimited investigating powers. He denied that the issue of the case was merely whether the folk-singer had committed contempt by refusing to answer the questions as had been earlier suggested by the prosecutor, Irving Younger, Assistant District Attorney.
"Pete Seeger's rights under the first amendment were violated, and he had the right to say the questions were invalid. The investigation did not serve any valid legislative purpose. There was no question of national security involved, or of over-throwing the government by force or violence."
This case, Ross asserted, "involves fundamental freedoms."
Seeger himself remained silent throughout the slow morning and afternoon sessions of the scheduled three-day trial.
The government's first witness was Frank E. Tavener, Jr. who, as counsel for the HUAC, had questioned Seeger during the hearings. He testified before Judge Murphy that the purpose of the hearings was to keep the Committee and Congress fully informed as to the activities of the Communist Party in order to evaluate the need for legislation.
This purpose necessitates knowing what type persons involved, what kind of activities they are involved in, and how influential they are, Tavener explained. This function is particularly important, he said, since the Communist Party has made a point of using name personalities as attractions in its activities.
Tavener vigorously denied any illegitimate aims in the hearings. "The Committee has never engaged in exposure solely for the sake of exposure," he maintained. Seeger was called because he had participated in meetings sponsored by the Communist Party, thereby indicating he might have knowledge about activities the Committee was interested in.
Ross Notes Ambiguity
During cross-examination, Ross tried to demonstrate that the Committee had no clearly established definition of "un-American Activities," "national security," or "internal security." He also attempted to show that the calling of Seeger was a "dragnet" proceeding unrelated to previous investigations.
Under court-room procedure, the judge heard testimony without a jury on legal questions involving the relevance of the investigation and of the questions asked Seeger. The jury of eight men and four women selected this morning, today primarily heard the transcript of the Committee hearings.