Nuke Free Referendum Stirs Legal Controversy

A group of activists who want to prohibit nuclear weapons research and production within city limits are about one quarter of the way to placing a binding referendum on the matter on the November municipal ballot.

Nuclear Free Cambridge, an affiliate of the Boston-based Mobilization for Survival, has been circulating 135 petitions in various neighborhoods and has collected about 1000 signatures. The group is planning a substantial push May 21, with 60 workers out on the street.

City election laws require that 8 percent of Cambridge registered voters must sign the petition to place a binding referendum on the ballot. Currently, that means collecting 4000 signatures.


But the closer the group gets to that total, the larger looms the legal question of a municipality regulating an industry that could be considered vital to national security. City and industry officials are questioning the legality of the referendum.

Referring to national security interests, City Solicitor Russell B. Higgley said last week. "I would say there's a problem as to whether a city can set national policy."

According to Nuclear Free Cambridge Organizer Erich Segal, however, at least 10 other nuclear free localities in the United States and about 50 others are considering similar measures.

While initially supportive of the petition drive, the city's Nuclear Education and Peace Commission has decided that it "shouldn't be taking a stand for or against the referendum," said Acting Chairman Mark D. Levine. "One of the issues here is to make sure that the city as a whole is represented; we've worried about this becoming a sectarian thing."

Charles Stark Draper Laboratories, Cambridge's largest nuclear weapons parts manufacturer with more than $116 million in contracts annually, has staunchly opposed the referendum drive and is one of the first firms to question the measure's constitutionality. Joseph F. O'Connor, vice president for administration at Draper, said last week that a local law which affects national security violates the constitutional provision for "the common defense."

"We think what we're doing is in accordance with approved current national policy," explained O'Connor.

He added that Draper makes a significant contribution to the Cambridge economy--$660,000 in taxes and 200 employees of which 10 percent are Cambridge residents--that would be lost if a nuclear free zone were declared.

California President

But Mark C. Cogan, a member of the Lawyer's Committee on Nuclear Policy who assisted in preparing the referendum, said the measure is similar to the state of California's moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants, a policy recently upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The California case is analogous to nuclear free Cambridge in the sense that California pertained to a state moratorium against national policy," explained Cogan.

Professor of Law Laurence H. Tribe '62, who represented the State of California before the high court, said the Cambridge issue "has nothing to do with the California case," adding that "it would probably violate state law, the First Amendment and other federal laws."

Nuclear research at Harvard would not be affected by the legislation because the University does not do weapons development.

"If Harvard decided they wanted to build a nuclear bomb, they couldn't, but both [MIT and Harvard] have specific policies against nuclear weapons research," Segal said.