Free Speech & Seditious Speech in World War I Era Connecticut

 Introduction

Censorship bill stirs opposition in April 1917

Excerpt, Bridgeport Evening Farmer, April 13, 1917, p. 17

The struggle over the definition of the right to free speech was a central feature of the World War I era home front, and events in Connecticut were at the center of a national debate that continued throughout the postwar decades.   Connecticut was a center of production for arms and munitions, much of it created by a combative immigrant work force whose militancy was feared and whose loyalty was suspect.  Pacifists and socialists were active in the state, respectively opposing conscription and trying to use the wartime economic boom to strike for work rules and wages.  At the same time, the Yankee elite and political leadership of Connecticut was recognized nationally for their pioneering and vigorous efforts to organize civilian political and material support for the war effort, and, of course, assure uninterrupted production.

Thus, antiwar and anti-conscription speech, interpreted broadly, led to arrests and convictions in Connecticut, as in other parts of the country. Members of immigrant organizations whose manifestos condemned war as resulting from capitalist competition were deemed deportable.  The legal authority for these actions flowed from the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918.  Related state legislation was enacted as well.  The means used by the U.S. Department of Justice to deport Russian immigrant workers from Connecticut, deportations based on their possible association with unpopular ideas about the ideal kind of government, were ultimately discredited by Louis F. Post, the Assistant Director of the U.S. Department of Labor.  His expose of the Connecticut process, found in his classic work, The Deportations Delirium of Nineteen-Twenty, was one of several analyses that—alongside opinions rendered in Supreme Court cases arising out of this period—laid the basis for the less onerous restrictions on free speech rights enjoyed today.  Immediately following the war, members of the Socialist Party, with the support of the newly founded ACLU, took to the streets in many Connecticut cities in a campaign to establish free speech rights, once, and for all. They failed, but their efforts around the state deserve to be more fully explored.

 

Timeline

  • August 1915    CT labor unrest attributed to foreign elements
  • April 1917    U.S. declares war against Germany
  • March 1917    Selective Service Act enacted
  • June 1917    Espionage Act enacted
  • May 1918     Sedition Act extends Espionage Act provisions
  • June 1918    Eugene V. Debs arrested for Canton antiwar speech
  • September 1918     CT Machinists strike in defiance of President
  • October 1918   Alien Act allows ouster of foreign-born anarchists
  • November 1919-1920     Deportations of Russian workers i
  • March 1919    Schenk vs. the United States decided
  • November 1919    Abrams v. United States decided
  • January 1920     “Palmer raids” against “Reds”
  • January 1920    American Civil Liberties Union formed
  • May 1920    Frankfurter charges Justice Dept. with illegal acts
  • October 1920    CT civil liberties advocates test speech rights
  • April 1921    State of Connecticut v. Coleman free speech case

 

How to Search this Topic in Historic CT Newspapers

Open the Chronicling America website.   Click on the tab marked “Advanced Search.”   Select the state Connecticut.  Put one of the suggested search terms in the search box called “with the phrase” or “with all of the words.”

Suggested Search Terms

  • Free speech
  • Seditious speech
  • Disloyal utterance
  • Pacifism
  • Anarchism
  • Deportation
  • Espionage

 

Sample Search Results

 

Labor and Speech in Connecticut

“Mayor’s Effort to Gag Labor Ridiculed in City Court Cases,” Bridgeport Evening Farmer. (Bridgeport, Conn.), August 6, 1915, page 1, col. 6-7. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84022472/1915-08-06/ed-1/seq-1/>

“The Outrage Upon the Person of Cedarholm, Bowen, and Nelson; Why Mayor Wilson Should be Impeached,” “No More Public Speaking,” and “Overzealous to Serve,” Bridgeport Evening Farmer, August 6, 1915, page 7, col. 1-2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84022472/1915-08-06/ed-1/seq-7/>

“Members of Workers’ ‘Sick Benefit Society’ Pledged to Resistance,” Bridgeport Times, January 4, 1918, page 1, col. 1-3.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92051227/1918-01-04/ed-1/seq-1/>

“No Bolshevism in Phamphlet [sic] Which Caused Lavit’s Arrest, Statement of Business Agent,” Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, January 22, 1919, page 6, col. 2-3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92051227/1919-01-22/ed-1/seq-6/>

“Take Up the Fight for Free Speech,” Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, July 20, 1920, page 6, col. 3.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92051227/1920-07-20/ed-1/seq-6/>

 

Seditious Speech and Mob Violence

“Waterburian Held for Reviling Flag; Another Tries to Kill Soldier,” Bridgeport Evening Farmer, April 7, 1917, page 1. col. 1-2.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84022472/1917-04-07/ed-1/seq-1/>

“Two Kinds of Sedition,” Bridgeport Evening Farmer, April 12, 1917, page 6, col. 1-2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84022472/1917-04-12/ed-1/seq-6/>

“Hartford Police Arrest Pacifists,” Norwich Bulletin, September 17, 1917, page 1, col. 1-2.    Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1917-09-17/ed-1/seq-1/>

“Sentences at U.S. Court at Hartford:  New Britain Contractor Gets Year and a Day for Seditious Utterances,” Norwich Bulletin, May 29, 1918, page 1, col. 5.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1918-05-29/ed-1/seq-1/>

“Martin Plunkett, Socialist, Arrested:  Was Candidate for Governor of Connecticut,” Norwich Bulletin, June 15, 1918, page 1, col. 4.    Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1918-06-15/ed-1/seq-1/>

“Will Leave Tomorrow with Prisoners,” Bridgeport Times, June 13, 1918, page 2, col. 1.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92051227/1918-06-13/ed-1/seq-2/>

“45 Radicals Arrested Members of Russian Union of Workers,” Republican Farmer, November 14, 1919, page 1, col. 3-5.   Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015536/1919-11-14/ed-1/seq-6/>

 

Sentiment Against Unrestricted “Free Speech”

“The Right of Free Speech,” Republican Farmer, February 1, 1918, page 8, col. 2.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015536/1918-02-01/ed-1/seq-8/>

“Other Viewpoints,” reprinted from New Haven Journal-Courier in the Norwich Bulletin, April 21, 1919, page 4, col. 5-6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1919-04-21/ed-1/seq-4/>

“Extra! Police! Take Notice Any Rioter Who Resents Seeing ‘The Kaiser’,” Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, April 23, 1919, page 9, col. 5. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92051227/1918-04-23/ed-1/seq-9/>

“Letter to the Editor:  Socialism and Free Speech,” Norwich Bulletin, October 14, 1920, page 4, col. 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1920-10-14/ed-1/seq-4/>

“Deporting the Reds,” Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, December 29, 1919, page 6, col. 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92051227/1919-12-29/ed-1/seq-6/>

 

Post-War Efforts to Codify Free Speech Rights

“Street Meeting Speakers Get Arrest They Were Looking For,” Norwich Bulletin, October 13, 1920, page 5, col. 4-5. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1920-10-13/ed-1/seq-5/>

“New London Police Stop Street Speakers,” Norwich Bulletin, October 15, 1920, page 1, col. 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1920-10-15/ed-1/seq-1/>

“Loitering Charge against Waterbury Street Speakers,” Norwich Bulletin, October 19, 1920, page 1, col. 8. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1920-10-19/ed-1/seq-1/>

 

Bibliography

Brown, Rome G., Zechariah Chafee, Jr., Felix Frankfurter, et al. To the American People; Report Upon the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice. Washington, DC: National Popular Government League, 1920. Accessed on May 31, 2016 at http://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044031965403.

Burpee, Charles.  “Connecticut in the Wars” in History of Connecticut in Monographic Form, ed.  Norris Galpin Osborn, New York, 1925, Vol. 5, pp. 122-174.

Capozzola, Christopher.  “Defending the Connecticut Homefront” in “The Only Badge Needed is Your Patriotic Fervor: Vigilance, Coercion, and the Law in World War I America.” Journal of American History, March  2002, pp.  1362-1364. Accessed May 31, 2016 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2700601.pdf?_=1464717099807.

Chafee, Zechariah, Jr.  Free Speech in the United States.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1941, pp.  3-305.

Post, Louis F.  The Deportations Delirium of the Nineteen-Twenty: A Personal Narrative of an Official Experience.  Charles F. Kerr, 1923. Accessed on May 31, 2016 at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:FHCL:879814.

Schubert, Bruce B.  “The Palmer Raids in Connecticut, 1919-1920,” Connecticut Review (October 1971), pp. 53-69.

Strauss, Lon: Social Conflict and Control, Protest and Repression (USA), in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2014-10-08. Accessed on May 31, 2016 at http://dx.doi.org/10.15463/ie1418.10281.

Walker, Samuel.  “War, Repression, and the Origins of the Free Speech Fight, 1917-1918” in In Defense of American Liberties:  A History of the ACLU.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 11-60.

White, Jeffrey.  “Stamping Out the Reds:  the Palmer Raids in Connecticut,” Connecticut Explored, Spring 2005.  Accessed on May 31, 2016 at http://ctexplored.org/stamping-out-the-reds-the-palmer-raids-in-connecticut/.

 

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