1924 December 17

ACLU Leader Baldwin Defends His Actions in “Unlawful Assembly” Case


Roger Baldwin, Director of the ACLU, defended his behavior in Patterson, New Jersey, two months earlier, when he was arrested for unlawful assembly in a demonstration in support of striking silk workers. The police had blocked participants in a parade Baldwin was leading from entering a hall that the striking workers had rented. When the parade later reached City Hall, the police charged the group and began “clubbing [people] right and left.”

Baldwin was arrested the next day when he went to police headquarters. Police Chief John Tracey told him he objected to the union meeting because they were “denouncing” President Calvin Coolidge. Baldwin pointed out that the Democratic Party candidate for president was doing the same. When Baldwin said that the chief was talking as if he were “the censor and the law,” Chief Tracey replied, “I am.”

Baldwin was convicted of unlawful assembly and sentenced to six months in jail, but the New Jersey high court overturned the conviction on May 14, 1928, citing a lack of evidence that the parade was unlawful. The court’s decision was a rarity in the context of the 1920s, a time when both police and courts were almost universally hostile to pro-labor demonstrations.

The landmark Supreme Court case on freedom of assembly was Hague v. C.I.O (June 5, 1939), which arose out of a labor union organizing struggle in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Learn more about the history of the ACLU: Samuel Walker, In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (1990)

Watch a documentary on ACLU founder Roger Baldwin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ND_uY_KXGgY

Learn more about Roger Baldwin: Robert Cottrell, Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union (2000)

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