1919 November 28

Charlotte Anita Whitney Arrested, Heads for Supreme Court


Charlotte Anita Whitney was a feminist and early American Communist in California. Always referred to as Anita Whitney, she is famous as the subject in the Supreme Court case Whitney v. California, decided on May 16, 1927. That case began when she was arrested in Oakland on this day for giving a speech to a left-wing rally and charged with violating the California Criminal Syndicalism law. (By the early 1920s, 30 states had some form of criminal syndicalism or criminal anarchy law. The California law was the most heavily used.)

The Supreme Court in Whitney unanimously upheld her conviction, but Justice Louis Brandeis wrote a concurring opinion that was virtually a dissent, and is generally regarded as one of the most eloquent and influential defenses of freedom of speech in the history of the Court.

Anita Whitney was pardoned by the Governor of California on June 20, 1927. She remained a committed and active Communist until she died at age 87 in 1955. In 1936 she was named national chairwoman of the Communist Party. And in 1949 at age 82, frail because of her age, she was carried to a rally to protest the Smith Act prosecutions of the top Communist Party leaders.

Justice Brandeis: “ . . . order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies….”

Read the new biography of Brandeis: Jeffrey Rosen, Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet (2016)

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