Schenck and Abrams: Free Speech Under Fire - Preface

Schenck and Abrams:  Free Speech Under Fire (Illustration) Censorship Civil Rights Law and Politics Summer Reading WWI Series American History Government Social Studies World War I Trials

W. A. (William Allen) Rogers created this political cartoon after Congress passed the Sedition Act in 1918.  Entitled “Now for a Round-up,” the artist shows Uncle Sam (personification of the U.S. federal government) going after "Spy," "Traitor," "IWW," "German money" and "Sinn Fein."  His authority to make these arrests is noted on the flag: "Sedition Law Passed."  Click on the image to enlarge it.  Online, courtesy Library of Congress.


The most stringent protection
of free speech
would not protect a man
in falsely shouting fire in a theatre
and causing a panic.


Oliver Wendell Holmes
Schenck v United States

March 3, 1919

It was a time of extreme turmoil. The world was at war for the first time.

The precipitating event occurred in Bosnia, when a Serb (Gavrilo Princip) assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne (Archduke Ferdinand). Following that June 28, 1914 event, countries (mostly governed by cousins from the same family) lined up on opposite sides and, in a domino effect, the Guns of August erupted on the European continent.

Eight months later, in the spring of 1915, a German U-boat sank the Lusitania, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Germany’s warnings, against sea passage in the waters surrounding the British Isles, had gone unheeded.

Meanwhile, as starving Russians grew increasingly upset with their country’s involvement in the war, Vladimir Lenin spread the concept of socialism and a “worker’s state,” based on Marxist thought. He and his Bolshevik comrades comrades engineered Russia’s October Revolution of 1917.

Nicholas II, the Russian Tsar earlier forced to abdicate the throne his Romanov family had held for hundreds of years, would soon meet an unspeakable fate. So would his wife and children. 

Against this backdrop of fear and uncertainty, the United States Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 respectively. Free speech in America, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the country’s Constitution, would soon be put to the test. 

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Apr 01, 2007

Updated Last Revision: Aug 24, 2019

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