On this day in 1918 federal authorities sentenced the socialist leader Eugene Debs to serve 10 years in federal prison for violating the Espionage Act, a 1917 law that made it a federal offense to interfere with U.S. involvement in World War I. How did Debs run afoul of this notorious law? He delivered an anti-war speech to a crowd of leftists out for an afternoon picnic in Canton, Ohio.
Debs' speech was plainly protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But constitutional fidelity was not exactly a defining characteristic of the Woodrow Wilson administration, which helped to craft the Espionage Act and then used the vile law to silence political opponents. To make matters worse, the U.S. Supreme Court also failed to take the First Amendment at its word. Writing for the Court in the unfortunate case of Debs v. United States, Progressive hero Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. brushed aside Debs' First Amendment arguments and upheld his preposterous conviction.
By 1919 World War I was over and U.S. troops began returning home. But Debs still languished in prison, his health faltering. President Wilson, whose health was in even worse shape, came under pressure to pardon the ailing Debs. But Wilson flatly refused to free the political prisoner. As H.L. Mencken, an outspoken critic of what he termed the "Wilson hallucination" put it, "confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor Debs, all his instincts compelled [Wilson] to keep Debs in jail." President Warren G. Harding finally pardoned Debs in 1921.
The case of Debs v. United States went down nearly a century ago, but it still contains some useful lessons for the present day. Foremost among them is the lesson of what can happen when the government and the courts stop respecting the First Amendment.