A Clear and Present Danger
What does Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Rome under Sulla, and Assad’s Syria all have in common? None of them permitted free speech, which makes a lot of sense, because ideas are very dangerous to totalitarian society. So isn’t it great that we in the U.S. have free speech? NO! Because we don’t… not entirely, that is. The specifics have been decided in the cause Schenck v. United States, which took place in 1919. This case laid the foundation for the legality of the Espionage Act, and remains quite the controversy untill this day.
During the Great War, a military time draft was instated to help the Allies fight the menace of the Kaiser. But in crafting the draft, they perhaps overlooked the part of the Constitution that prohibited involuntary services. Wouldn’t forcing young men to go to war for ideals they perhaps didn’t agree with involuntary service? Enter Charles Schenk, Jewish secretary of the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party believed that the war was meant to serve the rich, and it only hurt the poor. They not only resented those who caused it, they believed everyone should have a part in opposing it. Schenck began to print and distribute pamphlets saying much the same, that a military draft was unconstitutional. Schenck eventually printed 15,000 of these leaflets. Obviously, this caught the attention of quite a few people, and Schenck was convicted under the name of a very controversial act: the Espionage Act of 1917.
The Espionage Act of 1917 was passed after the U.S. entered the First World War. The act seemed fairly straight-forward. It prohibited interference with the U.S. military’s operations or recruitments, and it prevented U.S. citizens from aiding the enemy. However, the act was extremely stringent, even allowing the death penalty for those who refused to obey it. Soon after it passed through Congress, it was used to stifle those who dissented with the military. In 1918, leaders of the organization Watch...