THE UNEXPECTED RELEASE from jail last week of Samuel L. Popkin lecturer in Government, and the disbanding of the Boston grand jury investigating the Pentagon Papers leak, ended a protracted pressure campaign by government officials who sought as yet undetermined information about Popkin's connection with Daniel Ellsberg '52 and other persons.
The termination of the government's sordid intimidation of Popkin comes as a welcome surprise. But the conditions under which Popkin gained freedom represent no gain for First Amendment rights which have been trampled by the Nixon regime over the last four years.
Sam Popkin went to jail after 15 months of legal appeals in which he contended that a Federal grand jury could not rights ask him, nor force him under threat of imprisonment to reveal the sources on which he drew during the course of academic research. At no time during this period would the government hint at its objectives in asking Popkin's knowledge of persons implicated in the leak of the Pentagon study. At no time would it bend in its determination to extract this information nor would its attorneys specify the relevance of Popkin's testimony.
Ultimately the government rejected a limited agreement by Popkin to answer some of the questions it had posed Its attorneys knew they dealt from a position of strength and so they brought down the clout of intimidation even harder.
Throughout this time various public appeals failed to impress Nixon officialdom with the impropriety of the grand jury's inquest. For its part, the Bok Administration--particularly Daniel Steiner '54, general counsel to the University--worked behind the scenes to aid Popkin's defense. Its approach, condoned by Bok and executed by Steiner, was to enter publicly into the case only when Popkin had exhausted all normal appeals.
For at least eight months, Steiner contributed time and research to Popkin's council. At Popkin's final appeal hearing. Bok himself argued the defense. And when that failed, Steiner want to Washington to lobby for Popkin's release. Four days later, Popkin was out and the grand jury was kaput.
We can only credit the genuine concern for justice and due process demonstrated by Bok and Steiner. But we abhor the fact that Popkin goes free only when the government sees fit to dismiss a grand jury which it had milked to the hilt.
The courts never supported Popkin's appeal, which was firmly grounded on First Amendment rights. Like so many others who have been felled this year by the government's malevolent attitude toward those rights, Popkin was subject to the whim of the government and its agents. He was jailed on a whim, and released on a whim. We cannot help but wonder what the future holds for the freedoms inherent in the First Amendment when the government holds and exercises unbridled powers to detain, harass and jail newsmen, scholars and other law-abiding citizens of this country.