Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent during World War I by Eric T. Chester

Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent during World War I by Eric T. Chester examines the history of civil liberties and government suppression during the war as part of a theoretical defense of absolute speech rights. Chester begins the book by reviewing efforts to suppress antiwar sentiments in the United Kingdom through the passage of the Defense of the Realm Act, which later served as a template for the Espionage Act. Chester turns back to the US to examine this history of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the forerunner of the American Civil Liberties Union. Founded on high ideals and with the mission of protecting the legal rights of consciences objectors and others prosecuted for opposing the war, the NCLB faced investigation and potential prosecution by the Justice Department. Chester concludes:

The government sought to intimidate the NCLB into being less forthright in its defense of those who were being prosecuted for their opposition to the war. Unfortunately, the leaders of the National Civil Liberties Bureau failed to meet this challenge.

To avoid prosecution, the NCLB agreed with the Justice Department to stop fundraising for the legal defense of IWW members accused of violating wartime security laws. In addition, to escape prosecution NCLB director Roger Baldwin helped the Justice Department compile information from seized NCLB files containing information on opponents of the war who had sought legal assistance.[1] Chester also explores the government’s suppressing and coopting the American Socialist Party. After taking a strong stand against the war in its St. Louis Resolution, the party quickly divided between moderates supporting the war and purists who remained opposed. Eugene V. Debs remained opposed to the war and exerted great influence on the party as well as public opinion, but as US became engaged in war Debs fell from the public scene due to health reasons. The New York City mayoral race involved Morris Hillquit, an antiwar Socialist, who did not win the race but garnered a larger than expected share of the popular vote, causing the Wilson administration to redouble efforts to bring the Socialist Party in line. With Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian government, socialists became more pro-war/anti-German and began cooperating with the government. Moderates made unsuccessful attempts to change the Socialist Party platform to prowar. Debs reemerged on the public scene, and after a period of making vacillating comments regarding the war he returned to an antiwar stance, albeit cautiously. In response the Committee on Public Information began planting misinformation about Debs in the press, having Debs expressing pro-war views. In reaction to this, Debs decided to go on a speaking tour where he would promote socialism and speak out against the capitalism and the war. Despite choosing his words carefully, Debs was arrested for a speech given in Canton, Ohio, charged with violating the Espionage Act and Sedition Act. Less than two months from Armistice, Debs was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.[2] Chester also examines the history of the IWW strikes held in the Pacific northwest and the use of the military to break-up strikes. The US Army arrested and detained IWW members for weeks (and months in a few cases) without due process of law, in effect suspending their right to obtain a writ of habeas corpus. Courts largely failed to intervene, and as trails were scheduled IWW members were released from military custody.[3] In another chapter, Chester turns his attention to the press and examines the history of The New Republic, a “focal point for progressive thought” at the time, and traces the journal’s evolution from supporting Wilson’s wartime policies to skepticism over their effectiveness and fears about their lingering impact, and cautiously moving the editorial stance to be critical of the President and the Justice Department.[4] Finally, Chester’s book explores a number of other issues related to this article’s topic (the process of freeing Debs from prison, efforts to try violators of US security laws in military courts (discussed in Part 2 of this article), law professor Zechariah Chafee’s critique of the Supreme Court’s First Amendment cases, and the evolving jurisprudence of Oliver Wendall Holmes).

[1] Eric T. Chester, Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent during World War I (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020), 73-132.

[2] Chester, 131-181.

[3] Chester, 276-309.

[4] Chester, 113-141.

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