1920 October 12

Arrested for Reading the Constitution


On this day, the police in Mt. Vernon, New York, arrested Rev. John Haynes Holmes, a leader of the new ACLU, for reading the Constitution. Rev. Holmes and Norman Thomas, also of the ACLU, and Rose Schneiderman, organizer of the Women’s Trades Union League, were in Mt. Vernon to speak about civil liberties. As soon as he started to read the Constitution, Holmes was asked by a police officer if he had a permit to speak. When he said no, he was arrested. The other speakers were also arrested. “We asked for a permit,” they explained, “but were refused” by the mayor.

The incident was one of several in the early years of the ACLU, 1920–1923, when its leaders were arrested for reading the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. See, for example, the other event on this day, October 12, 1920, and also March 17, 1923. The most famous incident involved the arrest of the noted novelist Upton Sinclair for reading the Bill of Rights in San Pedro, California, on May 15, 1923, in support of striking longshoreman. The incident led to the formation of the ACLU of Southern California.

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

And about the ACLU’s First Amendment battles in the 1920s and 1930s: Laura Weinrib, The Taming of Free Speech (2016)
Learn about the ACLU today: https://www.aclu.org/

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