1919 March 10

Debs Conviction For Anti-War Speech Upheld by Supreme Court


Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs was convicted of violating the Espionage Act for his anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918, in the midst of World War I. In the speech, Debs had carefully refrained from criticizing either the war or President Woodrow Wilson, but he was arrested and convicted anyway, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. At trial, Debs argued the Espionage Act violated his right to free speech under the First Amendment. In Debs v. United States, decided on this day, the Supreme Court upheld his conviction. The Court relied primarily not on Debs’ Canton speech but on the Socialist Party declaration opposing the war (see April 13, 1917), which it held that Debs accepted.

Debs ran for President in 1920, while in prison, and received about 1 million votes. Wilson rejected pleas to pardon the ailing Debs, but President Warren G. Harding pardoned him on December 25, 1921.

The Court: ” . . . we are of opinion that the verdict on the fourth count, for obstructing and attempting to obstruct the recruiting service of the United States, must be sustained.”

Read Debs’ speech and other documents on the case: http://debs.indstate.edu/d288d4_1920.pdf

Read: Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (1982)

Watch a documentary on Debs and his speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ywPrQGH5l0

Watch newsreel footage of Debs’s pardon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3EMJmd9Qf4

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