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During World War I, the United States government passed a number of laws that restricted speech considered dangerous to the war effort. The attorney general secured more than 800 convictions for seditious speech under these laws, and several high-profile cases made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
One such case, Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919), involved a group of Russian nationals who were arrested for distributing pamphlets criticizing the deployment of U.S. troops in Russia. The pamphlets encouraged workers to strike in hopes of frustrating the war effort.
The defendants were each convicted and sentenced to 15-20 years in prison. The Supreme Court upheld the convictions, concluding that the federal government could constitutionally restrict speech that posed a clear and present danger to the United States.
Interestingly, Justice Holmes, who had written for the majority in a series of cases upholding convictions under the Espionage Act, dissented. Holmes famously argued that speech should not be limited unless it posed a present danger of immediate evil, and further argued that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas.”
Today, this case remains a fascinating study of the freedom of speech and the government’s ability to curtail that freedom in times of war.