1918 August 22

Abrams Distributes Radical Leaflets, Makes First Amendment History


On this day, Jacob Abrams and his left-wing colleagues distributed two leaflets denouncing the sending of U.S. troops to Russia to assist the anti-Bolshevik revolution and other efforts to undermine the revolution. They were arrested and convicted under the 1918 Sedition Act (passed on May 16, 1918), an amendment to the 1917 Espionage Act, and which was the principal instrument for suppressing dissent during World War I. The appeal of Abrams’ conviction led to the major Supreme Court decision in Abrams v. United States, on November 10, 1919. The Court upheld Abrams’ conviction, but the dissent by Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis set forth the view that First Amendment protection of dissent was crucial in a democratic society. Their dissent eventually shaped modern constitutional law on freedom of expression (see the excerpt below).

The offending leaflet (excerpt): “His [the President’s] shameful, cowardly silence about the intervention in Russia reveals the hypocrisy of the plutocratic gang in Washington and vicinity.”

Justice Holmes’ dissent in Abrams: “But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.”

Learn more about the case: Richard Polenberg, Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech (1987)

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

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