First Amendment Library:
John Lord O’Brian

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Eugene Debs, a candidate for president, expressed anti-draft and anti-war sentiments at a rally, illustrated by his statement to the crowd, “[Y]ou need to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.” The Supreme Court, finding “the defendant caused and incited and attempted to cause and incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States and with intent so to do delivered, to an assembly of people, a public speech,” held that Debs’ speech violated the Espionage Act.

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The defendant circulated a newspaper that criticized the United States’ involvement in World War I. He was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 which granted the government wide latitude in punishing expression that could disrupt the United States’ war efforts. Affirming the defendant’s conviction, the Supreme Court stated, “a person may be convicted of a conspiracy to obstruct recruiting by words of persuasion.”

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Socialist Charles Schenck was charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act of 1917 for distributing leaflets which called the draft involuntary servitude and called for a boycott of the draft. The act made it a crime to “attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall wilfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States[.]”

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The Espionage Act (June 15, 1917, c. 30, Title I, § 3, 40 Stat. 217, 219) provides that: "Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States . . . shall be punished." Sugarman was charged with having violated this section on July 24, 1917, by words spoken in an address made at a Socialist meeting which was attended by many registrants under the Selective Service Act, sustained in Selective Draft Law Cases, 245 U.S. 366. He was tried in the District Court of the United States for the District of Minnesota, found guilty by the jury, and sentenced. See 245 Fed. Rep. 604. Thirty-one exceptions were taken to rulings of the trial judge. Instead of seeking review by the Circuit Court of Appeals under § 128 of the Judicial Code, the case is brought here under § 238.

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