Free Speech, World War One, and the Problem of Dissent

Michael O’Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University


This act quickly came under fire as unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court supported it, arguing the government had the right to repress free speech in time of "national emergency." Three of the court's rulings are excerpted here. Read these excerpts and consider whether or not the government should have the right to limit free speech.

Schenck v. United States
Schenck, a socialist, was convicted of violating the Espionage Act by distributing anti-war literature. Oliver Wendell Holmes gave a famous justification for limiting speech in time of danger.

Abrams v. United States
Similarly, Abrams and a group of radical activists were convicted of conspiracy under the Espionage Act--again for distributing pamphlets criticizing the war effort. In this case, Holmes dissented from the majority, arguing that unpopular ideas should be protected.

Gitlow v. People
This excerpt from Holmes's famous dissent appears to argue for broader protection of free speech. Many historians have seen a contradiction in Holmes' positions, or argued that he had recognized the danger in his earlier position