by Sharon Carson
Amidon, North Dakota, the county seat for Slope County, is a town long known to drivers along Highway 85 for the life-sized but fake police officer who sat motionless in an old patrol car parked along the highway at the edge of town. This officer was an exceedingly compliant public employee who served for years as a low-cost speed bump.
In contrast to such a static symbol of the law, Amidon is named after Charles Fremont Amidon, a decidedly non-compliant federal judge who was born in 1856 to abolitionist parents and came to the Dakota Territory in 1882 to become the new and only high school teacher in Fargo. Amidon soon left teaching to study law in Fargo, and was appointed Federal Judge for the District of North Dakota in 1897, serving in that capacity until 1928. He died in 1937, with an obituary in the New York Times reminding readers that Amidon “was an ardent advocate of judicial reform, a supporter of the Constitution as a living document and a defender of the civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution.”
The Times also noted that Amidon’s “defense of free speech and free press subjected him to severe criticism during [World War I] and during A. Mitchell Palmer’s post-war ‘Red’ drive.” This seems an understatement, given the intensity of social ostracism and political opposition that Amidon faced during his years as a federal judge. Readers can find much more detail in Against the Tide: The Life and Times of Federal Judge Charles F. Amidon, North Dakota Progressive, by Kenneth Smemo, retired professor of history at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
In his capacity as a federal judge in North Dakota, Amidon acted as his own kind of progressive judicial speed bump, intervening on several occasions to stop unjust prosecutions or overturn convictions that were unconstitutionally aimed to suppress anti-war speech and legitimate criticism of the government. He pushed back firmly when sedition laws were used to curtail the free expression of political dissent.
Along with other progressives of the day he confronted the perils to constitutional democracy that can emerge during wartime and other times of severe social strain. And while Amidon spent his judicial career based in North Dakota, he was recognized nationally as an advocate for progressive liberalism, especially for his advocacy of free speech, a free press, freedom to dissent, and the freedom of unions to organize.
Two documents illuminate those commitments in ways which will ring familiar today. A 1919 edition of The Nation includes a letter from Amidon, written from Fargo but making no specific mention of tumultuous sedition cases in his own North Dakota courtrooms. Instead, Amidon rejects all use of coercive force and defends a free critical press in America, urging that the editors of The Nation “…not surrender and permit those to win who are buying up all the [media] organs through which the soul of democracy is trying to keep alive.”
Then in 1931, Amidon headed the American Civil Liberties Union Committee on Labor Injunctions, which issued a defense of workers’ rights in a report entitled “Even Adam Had a Hearing!” Philosopher John Dewey was a fellow committee member and the report makes for good reading still, especially these days in the Red River Valley. While not addressing lockouts as a union busting tactic, the report condemns the use of injunctions to break strikes and argues strongly for the social and political legitimacy of organized labor.
NOTE: Here’s the direct link to the ACLU report, one of many fascinating historical documents available at the “Debs Collection” (Eugene V. Debs) at Indiana State University: http://debs.indstate.edu/a505e9_1931.pdf.
(Sharon Carson teaches literature, comparative religion, and philosophy at the University of North Dakota, and works in public humanities and progressive media.)