5.4.4. The Midwest, 1900-1925: Coming to Terms With Diversity: Anti-Sedition Laws


Coming to terms with diversity in the Midwest:

  • At the end of the 19th century and during the first decades of the 20th century, many Americans in the Midwest and elsewhere struggled to come to terms with an increasingly diverse nation.  A new wave of immigration that began in the 1880s brought large numbers of people from southern and eastern Europe, many of whom migrated to the Midwest.  As the nation industrialized, the disparity between its richest and poorest people grew dramatically.  Many white-collar workers and farm workers felt they had little in common with the industrial workers who made up the bulk of America's growing and increasingly vocal labor movement; relations between the two groups were often uneasy and at times openly hostile.
  • American law expressed these tensions in a variety of ways, including anti-sedition laws, English-only laws, flag desecration laws and eugenics laws.
  • Anti-sedition laws.  The American Socialist party reached the height of its political power shortly before World War I began in 1914.  The party presented a direct challenge to the "free labor" philosophy that success was best achieved and national good best served through individual hard work rather than communal action.  That philosophy had been deeply imbedded in American thought since the early 19th century.  German-Americans provided much of the party's strength; in addition, many German-Americans actively supported their native country during the war.  
  • These two facts created a toxic mix when the United States entered the war and joined Great Britain and France against Germany in 1917.  The federal government passed several laws severely restricting freedom of speech and the press for opponents of the war; German-Americans' loyalty to the United States was openly questioned, and many German-Americans were persecuted.  Many states also enacted anti-sedition laws, but the scope of the laws and public enthusiasm for challenging German-Americans varied from state to state. 

 

English-only laws

Laws against flag desecration

Anti-sedition laws

Eugenics laws

Ohio

1919

1902

--

--

Indiana

--

1901

1921 (persons convicted under federal sedition law ineligible to hold state office)

1907 (struck down); 1927

Repealed 1974

Illinois

1889

1907

--

--

Michigan

1917

1901

--

1913 (struck down); 1923

Repealed 1974

Wisconsin

1889 (repealed 1891); 1898

1901

1917 (wartime only)

1913

Repealed 1977

Iowa

1897

1900

--

1911 (struck down); 1913

Repealed 1977

Minnesota

1919

1905

1917

1925

Repealed 1974

Key cases:  Coming to terms with dissent

State v Broms – Minnesota, 1918 (166 N.W. 771); State v Townley – Minnesota, 1918 (168 N.W. 591); State v Kassay – Ohio, 1932 (184 N.E. 521)

  • How broad is the right of free speech in America?  The modern debate over this question began during World War I, when the federal government and many states enacted anti-sedition laws in order to limit criticism of the war effort.  American judges disagreed on what test should be applied to determine whether speech was legal.  The “effects test” advocated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, which says that government may restrict speech which may lead to violent or disruptive conduct, prevailed over the “content test” advocated by New York federal judge Learned Hand, who argued that it was dangerous to predict the effects of speech in advance and that only direct advocacy of violence against the government should be prohibited.   Midwestern courts generally followed Holmes’s test, though they were often reluctant to rush to judgment about the likely effects of speeches by war opponents, radical unionists and other gadflies.
  • Minnesota’s supreme court wrestled with free speech issues often because the state  was a stronghold of E.D. Townley’s Nonpartisan League, an agrarian movement loosely affiliated with the Socialists that also opposed American entry into World War I in outspoken language.  In Townley, the court held that League speakers who argued for peace and criticized war profiteers were not likely to cause disruption; but in Gilbert, it sent to jail another League speaker who advocated peaceful resistance of the draft and the U.S. war effort generally.  In Broms, the court upheld the conviction of a speaker who called President Woodrow Wilson a grafter, said the Wilson had no authority to send drafted troops overseas and referred to the U.S. flag as “that thing;”  The court had no doubt that “riot and disorder [would] inevitably result” from such remarks. 
  • Law enforcement officials continued to prosecute labor radicals under the sedition laws after the war ended.   In Kassay, the Ohio supreme court upheld this use of the laws, reasoning that “[e]ven industrial reform is a proper subject matter for protection of the people of the state” and suggesting that a specter of potential violence necessarily hovered over all labor unrest.  Justice Florence Allen dissented, arguing that Kassay’s threat to destroy an airship during a speech was so far-fetched that it created no serious risk of violence.  She reminded her colleagues that the United States itself had been born in a revolution, and she cautioned against use of anti-sedition laws to suppress all calls for governmental change.  





Socialist Party election poster, 1912, featuring presidential candidate Eugene Debs (Indiana) and vice-presidential candidate Emil Seidel (Wisconsin)  (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)


Socialist leader Eugene Debs speaking in Canton, Ohio, 1918 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)



















"[A speaker] has no constitutional right by means of the privilege of freedom of speech to force his thoughts upon the attention of the public in public places in such manner that riot and disorder will inevitably result.” - Justice Andrew Holt, in Broms

“We have in this statute a direct attempt to deny the right to express opinion upon social and political questions … [The defendant] was indicted for justifying an act which evidently he never did … The Declaration of Independence was written as an incitement to deeds of violence in the furtherance of political reform.” -Justice Florence Allen (dissenting), in Kassay