1917 April 12

Free Speech League, Others, Criticize Proposed Espionage Act


One week after the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered the European war, free speech advocates on this day criticized the pending Espionage Act bill in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Attorney Harry Weinberger, representing the Free speech League, said the bill would give the president “too much power.” He and others strongly objected to the section of the bill that would punish causing “disaffection” in the military. Attorney Gilbert Roe pointed out that if there were genuine problems with the war effort the section would prevent people from “pointing out the evils and correcting them.”

The Espionage Act became law on June 15, 1917, and as the critics had warned, became an instrument for suppressing dissent during the war. Most notably, Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party, was convicted under the law for a speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918, in which he carefully did not mention the current war. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the speech.

The Free Speech League, formed on April 7, 1911, was the first free speech/civil liberties organization in the U.S. Although it handled a number of important cases in the years before the war, it essentially stopped functioning during the war. It was supplanted by the National Civil Liberties Bureau, organized on July 2, 1917, which in turn was reorganized into the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on January 19, 1920.

Learn about the Free Speech League’s role in the 1912 I.W.W. free speech fight: http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/73winter/speech.htm

Learn more: Paul Murphy, World War One and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States (1979)

And even more: Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004)

Read the important new book on free speech: Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016)

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