The Fight for Civil Liberties (1921)

Source: American Civil Liberties Union, The Fight for Free Speech (New York, 1921), pp. 15– 18.
The repression of dissent under the Espionage and Sedition Acts of World War I sparked a new appreciation among some reformers of the importance of civil liberties. In 1917, a group of pacifists, Progressives shocked by wartime attacks on freedom of speech, and lawyers outraged at what they considered violations of Americans’ legal rights formed the Civil Liberties Bureau. In 1920, it became the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). For the rest of the century, the ACLU would take part in most of the landmark legal cases that helped to bring about a “rights revolution.” Its efforts helped to give meaning to traditional civil liberties, like freedom of speech, and defined new ones, like the right to privacy. When it began, however, the ACLU was a small, beleaguered organization. Its own pamphlets defending free speech were barred from the mail by postal inspectors. One of the first documents issued by the ACLU was a general statement defining civil liberties, especially in areas where they had been violated during World War I. The group also insisted that civil liberties should apply equally to all Americans, regardless of race. Full protection of the rights outlined by the ACLU lay years in the future.

A Statement Defining the Position of the American Civil Liberties Union on the Issues in the United States Today (Adopted by the National Committee)
We stand on the general principle that all thought on matters of public concern should be freely expressed without interference. Orderly social progress is promoted by unrestricted freedom of opinion. The punishment of mere opinion, without overt acts, is never in the interest of orderly progress. Suppression of opinion makes for violence and bloodshed. The principle of freedom of speech, press and assemblage, embodied in our constitutional law, must be reasserted in its application to American conditions today. That application must deal with various methods now used to repress new ideas and democratic movements. The following paragraphs cover the most significant of the tactics of repression in the United States today.

Free Speech. There should be no control whatever in advance over what any person may say. The right to meet and to speak freely without permit should be unquestioned. There should be no prosecutions for the mere expression of opinion on matters of public concern, however radical, however violent. The expression of all opinions, however radical, should be tolerated. The fullest freedom of speech should be encouraged by setting aside special places in streets or parks and in the use of public buildings, free of charge, for public meetings of any sort.
Free Press. There should be no censorship over the mails by the post- office or any other agency at any time or in any way. Privacy of communication should be inviolate. Printed matter should never be subject to a political censorship. The granting or revoking of second class mailing privileges should have nothing what ever to do with a paper’s opinions and policies. If libelous, fraudulent, or other illegal matter is being circulated, it should be seized by proper warrant through the prosecuting
authorities, not by the post- office department. The business of the post-office department is to carry the mails, not to investigate crime or to act as censors. There should be no control over the distribution of literature at meetings or hand to hand in public or in private places. No system of licenses for distribution should be tolerated.
Freedom of Assemblage. Meetings in public places, parades and pro cessions should be freely permitted, the only reasonable regulation being the advance notification to the police of the time and place. No discretion should be given the police to prohibit parades or processions, but merely to alter routes in accordance with the imperative demands of traffic in crowded cities. There should be no laws or regulations prohibiting the display of red flags or other political emblems. The right of assemblage is involved in the right to picket in time of strike. Peaceful picketing, therefore, should not be prohibited, regulated by injunction, by order of court or by police edict. It is the business of the police in places where picketing is conducted merely to keep traffic free and to handle specific violations of law against persons upon complaint.
The Right to Strike. The right of workers to organize in organizations of their own choosing, and to strike, should never be infringed by law. Compulsory arbitration is to be condemned not only because it destroys the workers’ right to strike, but because it lays emphasis on one set of obligations alone, those of workers to society.
Law Enforcement. The practice of deputizing privately paid police as general police officers should be opposed. So should the attempts of private company employees to police the streets or property other than that of the company. The efforts of private associations to take into their own hands the enforcement of law should be opposed at every point. Public officials, employees of private corporations, and leaders of mobs, who interfere with the exercise of the constitutionally established rights of free speech and free assembly, should be vigorously proceeded against. The sending of troops into areas of industrial conflict to maintain law and order almost inevitably results in the government taking sides in an industrial conflict in behalf of the employer. The presence of troops, whether or not martial law is declared, very rarely affects the employer adversely, but it usually results in the complete denial of civil rights to the workers.
Search and Seizure. It is the custom of certain federal, state and city officials, particularly in cases involving civil liberty, to make arrests without warrant, to enter upon private property, and to seize papers and literature without legal process. Such practices should be contested. Officials so violating constitutional guarantees should be proceeded against.
The Right to a Fair Trial. Every person charged with an offense should have the fullest opportunity for a fair trial, for securing counsel and bail in a reasonable sum. In the case of a poor person, special aid should be organized to secure a fair trial, and when necessary, an appeal. The legal profession should be alert to defend cases involving civil liberty. The resolutions of various associations of lawyers against taking cases of radicals are wholly against the traditions of American liberty.
Immigration, Deportation and Passports. No person should be refused admission to the United States on the ground of holding objectionable opinions. The present restrictions against radicals of various beliefs is wholly opposed to our tradition of political asylum. No alien should be deported merely for the expression of opinion or for membership in a radical or revolutionary organization. This is as un- American a practice as the prosecution of citizens for expression of opinion. The attempt to revoke naturalization papers in order to declare a citizen an alien subject to deportation is a perversion of a law which was intended to cover only cases of fraud.
Citizenship papers should not be refused to any alien because of the expression of radical views, or activities in the cause of labor. The granting of passports to or from the United States should not be dependent merely upon the opinions of citizens or membership in radical or labor organizations.
Liberty in Education. The attempts to maintain a uniform orthodox opinion among teachers should be opposed. The attempts of educational authorities to inject into public school and college instruction propaganda in the interest of any par tic u lar theory of society to the exclusion of others should be opposed.
Race Equality. Every attempt to discriminate between races in the application of all principles of civil liberty h ere set forth should be opposed.
How to Get Civil Liberty
We realize that these standards of civil liberty cannot be attained as abstract principles or as constitutional guarantees. Economic or political power is necessary to assert and maintain all “rights.” In the midst of any conflict they are not granted by the side holding the economic and political power, except as they may be forced by the strength of the opposition. However, the mere public assertion of the principle of freedom of opinion in the words or deeds of individuals, or weak minorities, helps win recognition, and in the long run makes for tolerance and against resort to violence. Today the organized movements of labor and of the farmers are waging the chief fight for civil liberty throughout the United States as part of their effort for increased control of industry. Publicity, demonstrations, political activities and legal aid are organized nationally and locally. Only by such an aggressive policy of insistence can rights be secured and maintained. The union of organized labor, the farmers, radical and liberal movements is the most effective means to this. It is these forces which the American Civil Liberties Union serves in their efforts for civil liberty. The practical work of free speech demonstrations, publicity and legal defense is done primarily in the struggles of the organized labor and farmers movements.