What do an assassinated US president, an award-winning Broadway musical, and a historical obscenity case in the Supreme Court all have in common?
First, they all have connections to northeast Ohio.
Second, they were part of a unique continuing legal education program offered by the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association on July 14.
“It gets lawyers out of stuffy conference rooms to where these things happened,” commented Bruce Hennes, CEO of Hennes Communications, which helped set up the program which included stops at the James Memorial. A. Garfield at Lakeview Cemetery and Centrum. Theater in the nearby village of Coventry.
“It makes the law more three-dimensional,” he added.
Hennes worked with Kari Burns, director of continuing legal education for the bar association, to set up the program which included a lecture by Cleveland lawyer and author James Robenalt and a performance of selections from “The Assassins” of Stephen Sondheim.
Hennes called Burns “one of the most innovative CLE directors in the country” for the walking tours she launched last summer.
Burns said the tours were a way to bring groups together after the pandemic and connect lawyers to local history.
Hennes, a long-time resident of Coventry, wanted to highlight the role that the former Heights Art Cinema and its owner at the time, Nico Jacobellis, played in protecting against censorship.
Jacobellis was arrested and fined in 1959 for showing a French art film titled “Lovers” which local authorities deemed obscene. He appealed and the case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
The scene in question, with off-screen sex, would today earn a PG rating, but the standards were different then.
“Lustful minds will enjoy themselves,” chuckled a Plain Dealer film critic.
Andrew Geronimo, director of the First Amendment Clinic at Case Western Reserve School of Law, said during a presentation at the theater that the United States Supreme Court had ruled the film was not pornographic.
Judge Potter Stewart said he could not express what obscenity is “but I know it when I see it”.
Geronimo said that oft-quoted statement “sticks by my throat” because it fails to provide a clear standard for First Amendment rights that the Supreme Court continues to wrestle with.
“That’s not the standard you should be using to restrict speech,” he said.
Garfield’s grave is a few blocks from the Centrum, and the current gun rights debate is tied to the continuing education mission, Hennes said.
The bar association hired Robenalt, a Thompson Hine attorney and author of four books, to address the history of gun violence in the United States.
Garfield came to the White House as the dark horse candidate after a career as a scholar, war hero, and congressman.
Unfortunately, he was unable to exercise his considerable talents as president for very long. On July 2, 1881, just four months after his inauguration, he was shot by a crazed office seeker named Charles Guiteau.
Garfield had no security details when he was shot at a Washington DC train station.
“Guiteau approached and shot him twice” with a revolver he had bought for $15, Robenalt said.
A bullet hit Garfield’s vertebrae but missed the spinal cord. He lingered until September, dying of an infection from the wound.
Historians disagree on whether the infection was the result of the unsanitary measures taken by doctors or was caused by the lingering injury, Robenalt said.
Guiteau, whom Robenalt described as “utterly insane” who believed he was acting at the behest of God, was hanged the following year. On the scaffold he read a poem he wrote, saying “I go to Lordy and am so happy.”
Robenalt was joined by Greg Truhan, who spent 22 years with the US Secret Service beginning in 1986. He recounted the assassinations and attempted assassinations of presidents from Andrew Jackson in 1835 to Ronald Reagan in 1981.
He called Guiteau and other assassins “collectors of injustice.” They will tell you why they did what they did.
After the attack on Reagan outside a DC hotel, the Secret Service used “covered arrivals” and decoy vehicles, Truhan said.
There has been no assassination attempt on a president since Reagan, although the White House and its grounds have been breached on several occasions. A taller and stronger fence and barriers are being built, he said.
Of course, civilian shooting deaths have only multiplied.
Robenalt offered a statement that Robert F. Kennedy made at the Cleveland City Club on April 5, 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..
“We apparently condone an increasing level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization,” Kennedy said. “We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire the weapons and ammunition they desire.”
A few weeks later, Kennedy, a presidential candidate, is the victim of a deranged assassin’s bullet.
Robenalt denounced recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings which he said created “an almost absolute right to bear arms.”
This year’s decision to strike down a 100-year-old New York concealed-carry law is “a really dangerous path,” Robenalt said.
Truhan became an advisor to a Lakeland Community College production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” which examined the psyches of characters ranging from John Wilkes Booth to Sarah Jane Moore, who tried to shoot President Gerald Ford.
Cast members performed two numbers from the show, including “The Ballad of Guiteau”, performed by Adam Rawlings.
Charlie said hell if I’m guilty
So God is also
But God was acquitted
And Charlie got engaged
Truhan linked the motivations of the insurgents who stormed the Capitol on January 6 to those who took the life of a president.
John Wilkes Booth thought he was doing good for his country by killing Lincoln, and the rioters thought they were helping their country, Truhan said.
The play “Assassins,” which debuted on Broadway in 2007, “is more relevant now than ever,” Truhan said.
Kari Burns said future planned CLE tours include a look at the refugee response in Ohio City and a tiki boat ride to discuss the lakeside proposals.
Law Society programs are open to the public and free to those not seeking continuing education credits.
The information is on www.clemetrobar.org.