From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America

From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America

by Christopher Finan

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In 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched a government roundup of thousands of Russian immigrants and deported 800 of them for their radical ideas, a flagrant violation of First Amendment rights. Decades later, a second Red Scare gripped the United States as Senator Joseph McCarthy spearheaded a witch-hunt for Russian agents while sneering at "egg-sucking


In 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched a government roundup of thousands of Russian immigrants and deported 800 of them for their radical ideas, a flagrant violation of First Amendment rights. Decades later, a second Red Scare gripped the United States as Senator Joseph McCarthy spearheaded a witch-hunt for Russian agents while sneering at "egg-sucking liberals" who defended "Communists and queers."

The nearly century-long battle between heresy hunters and civil libertarians makes the story of free speech in this country a colorful one, filled with dramatic episodes and larger-than-life personalities. Historian and free-speech advocate Christopher Finan introduces us to a cast of characters as varied as a young G.I. named Hugh Hefner and the ever-vigilant Emma Viets, chair of the Kansas City censorship board, who cheerfully cut scenes that weren't "clean and wholesome" from Hollywood films, shortening onscreen kisses and excluding any image of a woman "in the family way." 

This history has enormous relevance in post-Patriot Act America. At a time when government is warning citizens and the press to watch what they say, the words of Murray I. Gurfein, a judge from another era, have special resonance: "The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know."

From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act traces the fight for free speech from the turn of the nineteenth century through the War on Terror. Christopher Finan has given us a vital history of our most fundamental, and most vulnerable, constitutional right.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Finan (Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior), president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, provides an insightful history of the long struggle for free speech in America. The book is especially apropos for our own age, when, confronted by the Patriot Act, otherwise mild-mannered librarians have morphed into tenacious guardians of civil liberty, refusing to open client records to the FBI. The government has more than once tried to suppress the First Amendment right to free expression of suspected radicals, antiwar activists and labor unionists. In November 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched raids during which 4,000 Americans, mostly immigrants, were rounded up because they were suspected of being Communists. In 1923, Upton Sinclair went to jail for the brazen act of reading the First Amendment aloud on Liberty Hill in San Pedro, Calif. Thirty-four years later, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a City Lights bookstore clerk faced trial in San Francisco for selling Allen Ginsberg's "obscene" book Howl.Finan's tome is chock-full of would-be tyrants eager to tell others what they might say and think. But it's also chock-full of heroes (from the ACLU to those brave librarians) who have refused to be silenced. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Finan (president, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression) begins his sad tale of modern attacks on the First Amendment with the pre-World War I campaigns against the Wobblies and other labor activists, which expanded into the prosecution of antiwar activists, ethnics, pacifists, and Socialists and culminated in the 1919 Palmer raids. At the same time, leading civil libertarians organized the first of several groups that became the American Civil Liberties Union. Finan shows that the primary focus of government and social repression has always been the "enemy" of the day-Socialists and pacifists in World War I, Communists and foreigners during the first Red Scare, Communists and all those left of center in the McCarthy years, and antiwar protestors during Vietnam and post-9/11. Along the way, unionists, writers condemned as obscene, teachers with unpopular views, and librarians could all become ensnared in the net of oppression. Finan examines the steady expansion of our concept of freedom of speech, as underpinned by the ACLU, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Supreme Court. He defines the battle to protect free speech as an ongoing one in which today's antiterrorism laws are of a piece with earlier suppressions. Based on original research as well as secondary sources, this timely book will be of interest both to general and academic readers. Highly recommended.
—Duncan Stewart

From the Publisher
A welcome and much-needed change from the simplistic good-versus-evil treatment this subject often gets. Could be the definitive study of a perpetually complex, contentious issue.—Booklist, starred review

"At a time when America's freedoms and liberties are under attack in Washington, Finan's book is a powerful reminder of why we must carry on the fight to preserve . . . the right to free and uncensored discourse."—Senator Bernie Sanders

"A marvelously readable account of the struggle for free speech in the United States . . . It is a story every American should know, for it is our nation's greatest achievement."—Geoffrey R. Stone, author of Perilous Times

"Finan's colorful narrative . . . shows how much progress we have made-and how far we have to go."—Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU and professor of law, New York Law School

"In this masterful work, Chris Finan deftly chronicles the challenges to free speech in the twentieth century; an accessible, thought provoking history that not only informs, but also engages the reader."—Joyce Meskis, Owner, Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver

"American history is marred by recurrent episodes of hate—Red scares, super-patriotism, fear of sexual expression. Christopher Finan brilliantly paints that record, and shows how courageous Americans have fought for freedom."—Anthony Lewis, author of Gideon's Trumpet and Make No Law

"Concisely detailed and researched, From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act reads like high powered fiction. Characters as diverse as Roger Baldwin, Bernie Sanders, Allen Ginsberg, Fatty Arbuckle, Jane Russell, Anthony Comstock, John Ashcroft and Dwight Eisenhower share the stage to tell the tale of a nation at odds with its Puritan heritage. A timely addition to bookshelves as the United States wrestles with issues of privacy and personal freedoms in an age of terrorism tied to an unpopular war."—Kenton Oliver, Intellectual Freedom Committee Chair, the American Library Association

"This is one of the most important—and readable—books written about the price of freedom in a democracy. Do we want to pay for our freedom and security with our free speech? Timely and urgent, this is an essential book for citizens, politicians, and government officials to read and embrace." —Alicia Greene, Olsson's Books & Records, Washington, DC

"From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act is a nicely paced history with a list of fascinating characters…a well-researched and analytical study of the persistent arguments Americans have had regarding the First Amendment."—Deseret Morning News

"Finan’s engaging book is a work of many well-told stories, all true… Christopher Finan does an admirable job in revealing how America’s most fundamental freedom has too often become its most vulnerable one. From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act is a book to be read and discussed by freedom-loving Americans and by teachers, too. For there—in the classroom—is where Finan’s free-speech stories most need to be read ... and remembered."—

"From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act is an engaging read and tells a story that is as relevant to Americans today as it ever has been."—Alternet

"an insightful history of the long struggle for free speech in America."—Publishers Weekly

"Based on original research as well as secondary sources, this timely book will be of interest both to general and academic readers. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"A book with enormous relevance for post-9/11 America."—Gene Roman, America Magazine

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From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act

A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America

Beacon Press

Copyright © 2007 Christopher M. Finan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8070-4428-5

Chapter One

Ground Zero

On the evening of November 7, 1919, Mitchel Lavrowsky was teaching a class in algebra to a roomful of Russian immigrants at the Russian People's House, a building just off Union Square in New York City. The fifty-year-old Lavrowsky was also Russian. He had been a teacher and the principal of the Iglitsky High School in Odessa before emigrating to the United States and now lived quietly with his wife and two children in the Bronx. Lavrowsky had applied for American citizenship. But that didn't matter to the men who entered his classroom with their guns drawn around 8 P.M. They identified themselves as agents of the Department of Justice and ordered everyone to stand. One of them advanced on Lavrowsky and instructed him to remove his eyeglasses. He struck Lavrowsky in the head. Two more agents joined the assault, beating the teacher until he could not stand and then throwing him down the stairwell. Below, men hit him with pieces of wood that they had torn out of the banister.

Lavrowsky soon had company on the stairs. There were several hundred people in the Russian People's House that night, most ofthem students. After they were searched and relieved of any money they might be carrying, the students were ordered out of their classrooms and into a gauntlet of men who struck some of them on the head and pushed them down the stairs toward the waiting police wagons. Students were grabbed as they approached the school and dragged inside. Some were beaten in the street. Meanwhile, with the help of New York City police detectives, the Justice Department men began to tear the place apart, breaking furniture, destroying typewriters, and overturning desks and bookshelves until the floor was covered in a sea of paper. When they judged that there was nothing useful left, they carted off two hundred prisoners to the Department of Justice's offices in a building across from City Hall. The Russians were questioned about their connection to the Union of Russian Workers, which rented a room in the Russian House. The agents discovered that only thirty-nine were members of the group and released the rest. Mitchel Lavrowsky was sent home at midnight with a fractured head, shoulder, and foot.

The roundup of Russians continued through the night and into the next day. The police burst into apartments and dragged people from their beds. Sometimes they had arrest warrants, but usually they simply arrested everyone they found. In the end, the Department of Justice had grabbed more than one thousand people in eleven cities. Approximately 75 percent of those arrested were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and many were quickly released. Others were not so lucky. Nearly one hundred men were locked up in Hartford, Connecticut, for almost five months. Many of them were denied access to a lawyer or even knowledge of the charges against them. Probably half were Russian workers whose only crime was that they could not speak English. When a lawyer finally succeeded in getting inside the jail, ten of the men were released with no bail.

America cheered the November raids. World War I had ended a year earlier, and the country was enduring a wrenching conversion to peace. Unemployment surged as returning veterans sought to reclaim their old jobs. Many of them had been eliminated as the economy was retooled for war production, and now the war workers, too, were out of work. In the transition between war and peace, there were too few consumer goods. No new housing had been built in over eighteen months. As a result, at the moment when they could least afford it, Americans found themselves facing high inflation. It isn't surprising that at a time when they were feeling so vulnerable, people began to worry about the danger of foreign radicalism. Radicalism was nothing new: The Socialist Party had existed here for many years. But the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 appeared to have launched a worldwide revolutionary threat that many people easily connected with the growing number of strikes in the United States-over 3,600 in 1919 alone. Although these strikes were driven by inflation, not radical ideology, employers did their best to paint their workers as subversives. The threat of revolution seemed to be confirmed in June when eight bombs exploded outside the homes of prominent men, including the new attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer. The nation demanded swift action. "I was shouted at from every editorial sanctum in America from sea to sea; I was preached upon from every pulpit," Palmer recalled. "I was urged-I could feel it dinned into my ears-throughout the country to do something and do it now."

The November raids were the result. Launched on the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, they were followed by a second, even larger series of raids in January that seized over three thousand members of two new American parties, the Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party.

Although the Palmer Raids generated a lot of good publicity for the Department of Justice, they accomplished little. The government never discovered who was behind the June bombings. The radicals who were arrested in November and January were not charged with any crime. The Department of Justice would have been unable to take any action at all if Congress had not made it a deportable offense for an alien to belong to a group that advocated the violent overthrow of the government. The people who were arrested during the Palmer Raids were picked up not because of anything they had done but because of what they might do. In fact, many of those arrested and held for deportation did not believe in violence. The Union of Russian Workers had declared its belief in revolution when it was founded in 1907, but by 1919 it had largely become a social club whose members were unaware of its founding principles. The Department of Labor later canceled thousands of deportation orders issued to members of the Communist Labor Party on the grounds that it, too, was not a truly revolutionary party. In the end, the government succeeded in deporting only eight hundred of the more than four thousand people it had arrested.

But the government raids did achieve something important. They raised the issue of what freedoms are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment bars government from "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." By targeting people for deportation based on their beliefs, the Palmer Raids had violated the First Amendment. Emma Goldman made this point during her deportation hearing in October 1919. Born in Russia, the fifty-year-old Goldman was one of the country's most notorious radicals. Like many anarchists, she believed that violent acts were a legitimate response to capitalist oppression. Her lover, Alexander Berkman, served fourteen years in prison for attempting to assassinate the manager of the Carnegie Steel Mill during a bitter strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. Goldman herself once horsewhipped a political opponent. But mostly Goldman used her great oratorical gifts to apply the lash. Although she was short, stout, and far from beautiful, Goldman was a powerful and charismatic speaker who thrilled her audiences with a vision of a new society in which there would be equality between the sexes as well as between the classes. Conservatives had longed to send "Red Emma" packing for years, and the Red Scare gave them their chance. As she was released from a prison term for opposing the war, Goldman was arrested again and held for deportation under the law passed following the McKinley assassination that banned advocacy of the overthrow of the government. The proceeding had been recommended by John Edgar Hoover, a twenty-four-year-old official of the Justice Department who was helping plan Palmer's antiradical campaign. Hoover was listening intently as the government's attorney made the case against Goldman during her deportation hearing.

If he hoped to hear Goldman plead for mercy, he was disappointed. She refused to speak during the hearing. Instead, in a statement that was read on her behalf by her attorney, Goldman attacked the effort to deport foreign radicals as an assault on free speech. "Ever since I have been in this country-and I have lived here practically all my life-it has been dinned into my ears that under the institutions of this alleged Democracy one is entirely free to think and feel as he pleases," Goldman said.

What becomes of this sacred guarantee of freedom of thought and conscience when persons are being persecuted and driven out for the very motives and purposes for which the pioneers who built up this country laid down their lives? ... Under the mask of the same Anti-Anarchist law every criticism of a corrupt administration, every attack on Government abuse, every manifestation of sympathy with the struggle of another country in the pangs of a new birth-in short, every free expression of untrammeled thought may be suppressed utterly, without even the semblance of an unprejudiced hearing or a fair trial.

Goldman warned that the government was making a terrible mistake by confusing conformity with security. "The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society," she said. "In truth, it is such free expression and discussion alone that can point the most beneficial path for human progress and development." Two months later, Hoover was standing on the dock as a decrepit government ship, the Buford, departed for Russia, carrying Goldman and 248 other deported radicals under heavy military guard. Goldman remained abroad until her body was returned for burial in 1940.

While the government succeeded in silencing Goldman, the controversy over free speech continued to grow. Only weeks after Goldman's hearing, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the most prominent member of the U.S. Supreme Court, indirectly endorsed her view that radical criticism of American institutions must be protected. This marked an important change in Holmes's thinking. In March, he had written the decision upholding the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party, for making a speech critical of America's participation in World War I. But by November, Holmes had changed his mind. In a case involving the distribution of radical pamphlets, he urged his countrymen to recognize the importance of protecting free speech:

When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by a free trade in ideas-that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

Holmes was unable to persuade his colleagues on the Supreme Court. Only Louis Brandeis joined his opinion. But an important turning point had been reached: free expression was no longer an issue for radicals alone; the fight for free speech had entered the political mainstream.

This was not the first time that freedom of speech had become a political issue. In 1798, when war with France appeared imminent, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to punish French sympathizers. The Sedition Act provided a fine of up to $2,000 and two years in jail for anyone who published "any false, scandalous and malicious writing" about the U.S. government, Congress, or the president. Twenty-five people were prosecuted, and ten editors and printers were sent to jail. Opposition to the suppression of free speech was intense, and both laws soon expired. Between 1836 and 1844, northern abolitionists strenuously protested a gag rule that barred the House of Representatives from debating antislavery petitions. In 1863, the Union commander in Ohio imposed martial law and outlawed "declaring sympathies for the enemy." A former Ohio congressman, Clement Vallandigham, was tried by a military commission and exiled to the Confederacy for violating the law. The arrest of Vallandigham was condemned as a violation of freedom of speech by Democratic newspapers throughout the North.

The first peacetime restriction on freedom of speech was passed in 1865 when Congress banned the mailing of obscene books and magazines. This law was broadened by Anthony Comstock in 1873 to ban advertisements for obscene material, which was also widened to include information about birth control. The passage of the Comstock Act did not generate the kinds of protests that had greeted the Alien and Sedition Acts or the arrest of Vallandigham. However, in 1902, a small group of radicals founded the Free Speech League to assert the First Amendment right of unpopular groups. Created in the aftermath of the assassination of President William McKinley by an anarchist in 1901, the Free Speech League opposed legislation restricting the right of anarchists to promote their views. It also came to the defense of those who were prosecuted under the Comstock Act for advocating free love and the use of birth control. But there was little sympathy for radicals, atheists, and advocates of open marriage. It took a world war to reveal that censorship threatened the rights of all Americans.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the overwhelming majority of Americans believed that it had little to do with them. It seemed to concern only the territorial ambitions of countries that were an ocean away from the United States. The fact that modern weapons made the war unimaginably bloody-nearly one million men were killed and wounded in the Battle of Verdun alone-deepened the revulsion of the American people. Over the next three and a half years, however, America's isolation eroded. German submarines attempted to strangle Great Britain by sinking any ship that might be carrying armaments. More than one thousand civilians, including one hundred Americans, lost their lives when a U-boat sunk the British liner Lusitania in 1915. In response to American demands, Germany agreed not to sink civilian ships without warning, but in January 1917 it announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. President Woodrow Wilson urged Congress to declare war in April. The war was about more than the freedom of the seas, Wilson said. In challenging the German autocracy, America was making the world "safe for democracy." Later, he would propose a League of Nations, which he believed would eliminate the need for war. America would fight for nothing less than an end to all wars.

Many Americans remained unconvinced. There were deep divisions in the population. The growth of industry had produced vast wealth, but it was unevenly distributed, and the great mansions that graced New York's Fifth Avenue were shadowed by slum districts where tuberculosis, alcoholism, and industrial accidents exacted a heavy toll. Many workers saw the clash of European powers as a capitalist struggle between countries attempting to extend their markets. The United States was also divided between immigrants and natives. Thirty million immigrants arrived between 1845 and 1915, and many of them had opinions on the war. The more than five million Germans included tens of thousands who still cherished memories of the fatherland, while not a few of the more than three million Irish immigrants hungered for the defeat of England.

President Wilson believed there was a serious threat of disloyalty, particularly among immigrants. As early as 1915, he told the Daughters of the American Revolution that he was looking forward to the time when disloyalty would be exposed. "I am in a hurry for an opportunity to have a line-up and let the men who are thinking first of other countries stand on one side and all those that are for America first, last, and all the time on the other," he said. On December 7, Wilson's annual message to Congress charged that

the gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed by our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.


Excerpted from From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act by CHRISTOPHER M. FINAN Copyright © 2007 by Christopher M. Finan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Chris Finan is the president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the chair of the National Coalition Against Censorship. He is also the author of Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior. Finan lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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