Court rejects Iowa town’s attempt to nix ‘Bix Smokes’ fliers

Wednesday, August 4, 1999

Bix Beiderbecke...
Bix Beiderbecke

For years, James and Melissa Getman attended the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa, to distribute fliers to those celebrating the music of the late jazz musician.

Instead of highlighting Beiderbecke's mastery of the cornet, the flier, titled “Bix Smokes,” detailed his passion for marijuana and how the drug influenced the music created by him and other jazz musicians of the 1920s and '30s.

During last year's festival held at the end of July, Davenport police officers ordered the Getmans to refrain from passing out such fliers or risk arrest.

But thanks to a federal judge's order last week, the Getmans were able to pass out their fliers at this year's Beiderbecke festival without interference from the police.

“They were behaving themselves,” Melissa Getman said. “Although the police were keeping an eye out on us, waiting for us to make any wrong move, we didn't make any. As a matter of fact, people came up to us asking for the fliers.”

Ah, the delicious irony of censorship, laughed Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, which petitioned the federal court on the Getmans' behalf.

“This was a couple that would quietly pass literature around the festival,” Stone said. “But because people tried to censor them, even more people knew about Bix Beiderbecke smoking marijuana.”

The fliers highlight passages from a Bix Beiderbecke biography that explores the relationship of marijuana to his and other jazz musicians' creativity. The Getmans said they hoped to show the senselessness of marijuana prohibition.

According to their federal lawsuit filed last month, the Getmans said they had passed out fliers at the festival without incident for several years. But during the 1998 festival, Davenport police officers ordered the couple to stop or risk arrest, and then confiscated several of the fliers. Police said the Downtown Davenport Association didn't want information about Beiderbecke's marijuana use circulating in the jazz musician's hometown.

On July 27, U.S. District Judge Charles Wolle issued a preliminary injunction allowing the Getmans to distribute up to 1,000 fliers at this year's festival. Wolle said his ruling applied only to the Getmans, meaning they were not allowed to solicit help in passing out fliers.

Gene Meeker, executive director for the downtown association, said the group may consider an appeal.

“We have not decided yet but we'll be meeting with our attorneys this week,” Meeker said. “We're trying to get over the Bix (festival) first.”

Meanwhile, Stone says the ICLU plans to petition the court to extend the ruling to all participants at future festivals.

As for the flier, Stone notes that it doesn't depict Beiderbecke breaking any laws, because marijuana was a legal substance during the 1920s and '30s when his career was at its height.

Stone says the attempt to censor the flier shows that the war on drugs has created such a “frantic attitude about drugs that it won't let people talk about alternatives.”

“Here we have a city government threatening to arrest people just for wanting to inform their fellow citizens about the wisdom or effectiveness of marijuana prohibition,” Stone said. “Such government censorship must be stopped or else no one will be safe to express their views on anything if people in the government don't like it.”