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FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND WORLD WAR I: Should Charles Schenck Have Gone to Jail for Encouraging Others to Oppose the Draft?
In 1917, Charles Schenck distributed 15,000 pamphlets encouraging Americans to oppose the draft, which had been established during World War I. Schenck was arrested under the Espionage Act, which forbade interference in military recruitment and banned materials that might be used to undermine the war effort from being sent by mail. Schenck appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, which for the first time considered the extent to which the federal government could restrict speech. Supporters of Schenck’s conviction argued that many forms of speech are subject to restriction, such as perjury, libel, slander, violent threats, and inciting others to commit crimes. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution only bars censorship in advance of an act of speech, they contended, but does not prevent punishment for the consequences of speech. Opponents of Schenck’s conviction contended that Schenck’s distribution of pamphlets had no real impact on the draft, and that reasonable restrictions on free speech should only include actions that present an obvious and immediate threat to the war effort. If judges and juries can decide the intent of the speaker in deciding whether an act of speech is a crime, they contended, then no act of speech is safe.
Let your students get the facts and decide for themselves: Should Charles Schenck have gone to jail for encouraging others to oppose the draft during World War I? Be sure to check out Issues & Controversies in American History’s clear and unbiased examination of freedom of speech during World War I this month.
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