1911 April 7

Free Speech League Incorporated, First Free Speech Organization


The Free Speech League, founded in 1902, preceded the ACLU by 18 years and is properly considered the first freedom of speech defense organization in the U.S. It was organized in 1902, but not formally incorporated until this day. It was led by Theodore Schroeder, who was a prolific writer but not a good organizer. The FSL handled a number of important free speech cases, including several involving the radical I.W.W. (see the San Diego fight, below). It never developed into a large national organization, however, and it quietly disappeared during the World War I years. Schroeder wrote several books, but unfortunately very little has been written about him or the League.

One of the Free Speech League’s earliest cases was its defense of John Turner, a British anarchist, who was probably the first victim of the repressive, anti-anarchist 1903 Immigration Act (March 13, 1904).

Read: David Rabban, Free Speech in its Forgotten Years, 1870–1920 (1997)

Read about the Free Speech League’s role in the 1912 San Diego free speech fight involving the I.W.W.: http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/73winter/speech.htm

Read the important new book on free speech: Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016)

Read Schroeder: Theodore Schroeder, “Obscene” Literature and Constitutional Law: A Forensic Defense of Freedom of the Press (1911)

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