When it came to espionage and sedition, the Supreme Court ruled against the First Amendment right of Free Speech in Debs v. United States (1919) on grounds of national security.



That being said, here’s the facts of Debs v. United States. Eugene Debs (petitioner) gave a political speech, which was aimed to incite people to interfere in the military recruitment of World War 1. Basically, he was convicted under the Espionage Act 1917 for trying to stop the US military draft. Soon, Debs was charged with more charges, which carried 10 years with each account. However, Debs appealed his conviction on First Amendment grounds.

The Supreme Court decided this issue in the Debs case. Was Eugene Debs’ conviction under the Espionage act of 1917 constitutional in regards to the First Amendment right of freedom of speech?


Here’s what the Supreme Court held in the Debs case: Free speech is not protected if it opposes war efforts.

Of course, Eugene Debs was a Marxist. Here’s an except from his Canton, Ohio speech:

“The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles… And here let me emphasize the fact — and it cannot be repeated too often — that 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. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.”

After the Debs case, however, the US government would continue to censor free speech. In Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC (1969), the Supreme Court said the government can censor radio shows via the fairness doctrine to give a right of reply. Government censorship of the First Amendment right of free speech would not end with the Debs case.

Historically speaking, free speech has not always been protected in the United States. In the past, President John Adams banned free speech. This President signed into effect the Alien and Sedition Act, and this Act was meant to stop Republican, Democratic, and French criticism, which was all aimed at his Federalist party. Congress, controlled by a Federalist party majority, passed the Alien and Sedition Act in 1798, which later sunsetted when the Federalist party lost power.

The banning of free speech goes back in history. Historically, Jesus Christ, the biblical Messiah in the bible, was brought up on sedition charges by the Jewish leaders of his day. The banning of free speech is an old practise, which goes back a long ways in time.



Overall, Debs v. US saw the banning of free speech. Nevertheless, free speech has been banned throughout history at various points. Essentially, the Debs case was pretty much the first case to ban the First Amendment’s free speech clause, but this case wouldn’t be the the last case to ban free speech.

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