What impact did World War 1 have on free speech in America?
During periods of war, freedom of expression often declines. At times, patriotism devolves into jingoism, and individual rights are pushed aside in favor of security and order. From the Revolutionary War through the modern-day War on Terror after the notorious terrorist attacks on American soil on Sept. 11, 2001, this trend has remained constant in American history. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled in Schenck v. the United States (1919) for a majority United States Supreme Court that "[w]hen a country is at the battle, certain items that could be said in times of peace are such a hindrance to its endeavor that their utterance would not be tolerated as long as men struggle, and that no Court should treat them as covered by any constitutional right."
Federal investigations also targeted conservative dissidents, leftist activists, and pacifists. Thousands of people were ultimately charged; about 45 percent were sentenced. Federal judges did not demonstrate themselves to be fearless defenders of First Amendment rights in this setting, but there were a few notable exceptions, most noticeably federal district judge Learned Hand. Appeals were often frustrated by a Justice Department uninterested in seeing the Supreme Court discuss the constitutionality of these federal laws. Not until early 1919 after hostilities had concluded did the Court confront the First Amendment in a sequence of cases opposing the Espionage Act.
1919 was a year of intense civil unrest, including a series of protests, the passing of Prohibition and Women's Suffrage, and the Chicago race riot. Summer 1919 saw the start of a string of bombings by alleged anarchists; on June 2, explosives exploded in eight towns, including Washington, D.C., where Palmer's home was partly burned. Who planted the explosives remains unknown. Although there were only around 70,000 self-identified Communists in the United States in 1919, Palmer blamed them for a variety of social ills, including the bombings. Mitchell began a campaign of showy and well-publicized raids against progressives and liberals, encouraged by Congress, which had failed to seat the newly elected socialist from Wisconsin, Victor Berger. Palmer's men destroyed union offices and the branches of Communist and Socialist parties, striking without notice and without warrants. They focused on aliens wherever possible rather than citizens, owing to aliens' lesser privileges. Palmer's agents arrested 249 resident aliens in December 1919, in their most famous act.