The Cost of Free Speech: Eugene V. Debs and the Speech That Got Him 10 years in Prison
It’s difficult to believe that, in the land of the free, a person can go to jail for giving a speech, and an anti-war speech at that. But that’s what happened. Click the video below and read along as Rick Smith tells the story:
On this day in labor history, the year was 1918.
That was the day Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party gave his legendary anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio.
It was the speech for which he would eventually be arrested, tried and convicted under the Espionage Act.
Though he avoided explicitly criticizing World War I or President Wilson, he made clear his views.
He gave the speech at a park near the jail where Charles Baker, Charles Ruthenberg and Alfred Wagenknecht, three prominent socialists, were being held on Espionage Act related charges.
Debs noted, “it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.”
Debs was defiant.
He unloaded his rage against the judicial system and the conviction of Socialist leader Kate Richards O’Hare for her anti-war views.
He railed against the suppression of Max Eastman’s Socialist press and the ongoing persecution of Socialists Tom Mooney and William Billings.
Debs briefly reviewed the history of wars in Europe and made the following observation:
“The master class has always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war… the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace…”
For this he was convicted of advocating disloyalty and draft resistance and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
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