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Wilson and the Repression of Free Speech

History textbooks typically portray Woodrow Wilson as the leader that brought America through the tragedy of the First World War and as the leader who inspired the creation of the League of Nations. Yet there is another side of Wilson -- one that seems rarely to be discussed today.

Wilson resisted efforts to go to war with Germany, even after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. He was re-elected to a second term in 1916 on the slogan, "He Kept Us Out of War." Even when Germany, in January 1917, announced unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson resisted the mounting pressure to declare war on Germany and come to the defense of England and France. Finally in April of 1917 Wilson delivered his war message to Congress.

Wilson declared, "I will not cry 'peace' so long as there is sin and wrong in the world," making the war a religious crusade and "Once lead this people into war, and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthlessness brutality will enter into every fibre of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street."

Perhaps Wilson's greatest fear was the American public, or rather the 15 million immigrants that flooded into the United States between 1900 and 1915. The single largest ethnic group in the United States was German-American. Then there were the Irish-Americans -- with the Irish Republican Army launching an uprising against British rule on Easter, 1916. Wilson feared that these two groups would not be willing to take up the fight. In fact, Wilson proclaimed, "Any man who caries a hyphen around with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the republic."

So Wilson developed a hard line designed to intimidate those reluctant to support his war and to crush those who would not support the war effort. Wilson warned Congress, "There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, . . . who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life . . . . Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out."

Wilson's government began to compel conformity, controlling speech in ways that had never been known before. Wilson pushed the Espionage Act through Congress in 1917, making it a crime "to willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States," or to "willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service" of the United States." It became a crime to "utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag." The act also targeted those who might "urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of the production in this country of any thing or things necessary or essential to the conduct of the war." In fact, the Espionage Act even made it illegal to teach, suggest, defend, or advocate any criticism of the government. The bill gave the Postmaster the right to refuse delivery of any periodical he deemed unpatriotic or critical of the administration. The Postmaster soon stopped delivery of virtually all publications and any foreign-language publication that hinted of dissent.

Even American Congressmen were not immune from the hysteria brought about by Wilson's attack of free speech. Progressive Republican Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin was one of six Senators to vote against Wilson's declaration of war. One of his Senate colleagues called La Follette "a pusillanimous, degenerate coward" and a hostile press distorted La Follette's position, making it seem that he supported the sinking of the Lusitania. His state legislature condemned him for treason and in the Senate, members introduced resolutions calling for his expulsion. On October 6, 1917, La Lollette delivered a stirring defense of free speech -- even in times of war. In response, the Senate launched an investigation of possible treasonable conduct. [in 1919, as the war was ending, the Senate dismissed the pending expulsion and paid La Follette's legal bills; forty years later, when the Senate named its five most outstanding former members, Robert La Follette was among the select few].

The Federal Bureau of Investigation created a volunteer group, called the American Protective League (APL) and made it an adjunct of the Justice Department. The APL was authorized to carry badges identifying them as "Secret Service" and within a year 200,000 APL members flooded the country, targeting any dissent.

This remarkable act made it virtually illegal to criticize the war or the government in any way. As a result, the Civil Liberties Bureau, a forerunner of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was formed in 1918 to oppose this legislation and the corrupting influence it had on American freedoms (the ACLU was formed in 1920). But Congress went even further -- between 1919 and 1920, more than 70 measures aimed at restricting, among other activities, sedition, the display of the Bolshevik flag, or the dissemination of seditious material in the mail. The Sedition Bill of 1918 was introduced to Congress at the urging of Wilson's U.S. Attorney General, A. Mitchel Palmer. This legislation made it illegal to attempt to change the government or laws of the United States.

Wilson hired a publicist, George Creel, to head the "Committee on Public Information" (CPI) -- a propaganda ministry with the sole purpose of "selling the war." CPI produced films, pamphlets, curriculum guides -- all designed to "paint Germany in a bad light." Wilson's propaganda ministry encouraged businesses to spy on their employees, parents to spy on their children, and neighbors to spy on neighbors. Most importantly, the CPI urged Americans to report "disloyal" pro-German sentiments. Creel himself stated that he demanded "100% Americanism." The teaching of German was banned in schools; German folksongs, such as "Oh Tannenbaum" were torn from children's songbooks; German street names were changed; and sauerkraut was renamed "victory cabbage." Posters were produced urging Americans to report anyone "who spreads pessimistic stories, divulges -- or seeks -- confidential military information, cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war."

Meanwhile, other government agencies were created -- the War Industry Board allocated raw materials, guaranteed profits, and controlled production; the National War Labor Board set wages; the Railroad Administration virtually nationalized the railroad industry; the Fuel Administration controlled gasoline distribution (and began Daylight Savings Time to save fuel).

Congress' acts quickly came under fire as unconstitutional. Initially the Supreme Court upheld the measures, arguing the government had the right to repress free speech in time of "national emergency." In Schenck v. United States, Schenck, a socialist, was convicted of violating the Espionage Act by distributing anti-war literature. In that case, Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes provided the justification for limiting speech in times of danger. The Supreme Court also upheld the Act in Abrams v. United States, although this time Holmes dissented from the majority, arguing that unpopular ideas should be protected. His dissent argues for broader protection of free speech and many historians suggest that between the two cases he recognized the danger in repressing free speech.

While the war ended, the climate of repression continued into the 1950s, with a shift from Germans to communists and the "red scare."

Comparisons to Events Today

What similarities are there between these historical events and those of today?

Conduct research to compare today's Patriot Act to Wilson's Espionage and Sedition Acts.

What affect might the limitation of free speech have on democracy?

Additional Sources

The First Amendment Center provides an excellent introduction to the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment (can you name all five?)

The Freedom Forum provides excellent lesson plans for teaching about the First Amendment.

Steve Weinberg's article in The Christian Science Monitor provides insight on free speech today through a review of Geoffrey Stone's Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism.

Free Speech Quotes

We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.     John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

"[Freedom of expression] is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom."     Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, Palko v. Connecticut, 1937

"Without free speech no search for truth is possible . . . no discovery of truth is useful. . . . Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race."     Charles Bradlaugh, British social reformer

"If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all."     Noam Chomsky

"I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."     Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear"     George Orwell

"Woe to that nation whose literature is cut short by the intrusion of force. This is not merely interference with freedom of the press but the sealing up of a nation's heart, the excision of its memory."     Alexander Solzhenitsyn

"Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one's thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason . . . . There can be no right of speech where any man . . . [is] compelled to suppress his honest sentiments. Equally clear is the right to hear. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker."     Frederick Douglass


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