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County attorney waxes historic

First amendment defense of Woodstock festival

By FRITZ MAYER

ALBANY, NY — Sam Yasgur thinks that when half a million young people overwhelmed his father’s property nearly 40 years ago, and created a three-day event that has since become an indelible part of human history, they were also exercising their rights under the first amendment.

Yasgur, the county attorney for Sullivan County, made his case in an October 23 lecture that was part of the prestigious New York State Court of Appeals Lecture Series in Albany. An introduction was provided by Chief Judge Judith Kaye.

After quoting the text of the First Amendment, Yasgur said, “The right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government? That sounds like the essence of Woodstock. Woodstock could not have been held in Tiananmen Square, or Red Square, or Bagdad or Teheran or in hundreds of other places. We should never forget how much that single sentence, the First Amendment, means to each of us.”

Yasgur, who is working on a book about his father, recounted how his father agreed to rent his field to the Woodstock organizers in 1969 because it was a very wet year, which dampened hay production. The rental income would help offset the cost of purchasing thousands of bales of hay.

But his conservative pro-war father also believed deeply in the right of free expression, so said Yasgur. “When some of my neighbors expressed hostility to those anti-war hippies, Dad became angry and the festival became a cause.”

Though it was a rough three days, Yasgur’s father, who had built a bottling plant on the farm, got into the thick of things.

“When he learned that some people were selling water to thirsty kids he became irate; I remember it as if it were just happening now. He told us to take every empty milk bottle from the plant, fill them with water and give them to the kids, and give away all the milk and milk products we had at the dairy.

“When he learned that many of the kids were trampling on neighbors’ crops, not realizing that hay fields were not lawns?they were mostly city kids?he quietly met with groups of the kids, and explained that farmers needed the crops to feed their cattle and the kids responded. They put up little signs in the area saying don’t walk here, these are the provider’s crops.”

Near the end of the concert, though haggard and extremely tired, the senior Yasgur took to the stage and said, “This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place, and I think you have proven something to the world, that a half a million kids can get together for three days of fun and music and nothing but fun and music, and I bless you for it.”

Though many of his neighbors turned against him, and despite the fact that after the festival Yasgur’s father was no longer welcome in the general store, he never regretted the decision.

Said Yasgur, “He believed that the kids had the right to peaceably assemble, speak freely through their music and petition their government for change.”

Go to www.nycourts.gov/ctapps/ to see a video archive of the lecture.