1919 May 1

California Criminal Syndicalism Law Takes Effect


The California Criminal Syndicalism law took effect on this day. The law was one of many similar lawsmaking it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the government. The California law also criminalized the display of red or black flags as political symbols, that were passed across the country World War I (1917-1918) and the post-war Red Scare period (1919-1920).

The law was modeled after the 1902 New York Criminal Anarchy Act. Specifically, the New York law made it a felony to advocate “the doctrine that organized government should be overthrown by force or violence, or by assassination. . .or by any unlawful means.”

During the 1920s, California made heavier use of its law against political radicals than any other state. One of the most cases under the California law was the prosecution of Charlotte Anita Whitney, whose appeal before the Supreme Court resulted on May 16, 1927 in a concurring opinion by Justice Louis Brandeis that is one of the most eloquent statements on the meaning of freedom of speech in a democracy.

Read Zechariah Chafee’s Classic Works on the early history of freedom of speech in the 20th Century: : Freedom of Speech (1920); Free Speech in the United States (1941)

Learn 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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