1917 August 13

Socialist Party Authorizes Anti-War Leaflets; Leads to Landmark Supreme Court Case


The Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of America on this day authorized General Secretary Charles Schenck to print 15,000 copies of a leaflet opposing the draft in World War I and to send them through the mail. The leaflet argued that the draft violated the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and reduced a drafted soldier to the level of a “convict.” It also urged people to “assert your rights” in protest, adding that “if you do not assert and support your rights, you are helping to deny or disparage rights which it is the solemn duty of all citizens and residents of the United States to retain.”

The leaflets led to Schenck’s arrest for violating the Espionage Act. The Supreme Court rejected his appeal in the landmark decision, Schenck v. United States, on March 3, 1919. The ruling also established the “clear and present danger” test for determining whether speech was protected by the First Amendment.

The Socialist Party represented the largest organized opposition to American involvement in World War I. See the party’s statement of opposition to the war on April 13, 1917. As a result, it was the victim of repression by the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. See the raid on the party’s headquarters on September 5, 1917, and the arrest of party leader Eugene Debs for an anti-war speech on June 16, 1918. Debs was convicted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to ten years in prison.

Read about the history of freedom of speech in wartime: Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004)

Learn more about the Debs case: Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Socialist and Citizen (1982)

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