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Rights and Resistance: Civil Liberties during World War I Scholarly Panel

The following is a guest post by Ryan Reft, a historian in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress.  


But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by the free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our constitution.

In his famous dissent from Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., deviated from his own earlier majority opinions on the issue of free speech.  Justice Louis Brandeis also contributed an equally powerful dissent in Abrams. Both justices rejected what they believed to be overly stringent limits placed on free speech by the Espionage Act of 1917 and its 1918 amendment, known as the Sedition Act.

Over time, the two dissents pointed to the future of American jurisprudence regarding civil liberties in the 20th century and contributed to our modern conception of citizenship.  Notably, the Holmes dissent represented a retreat from his “clear and present danger” doctrine as expressed in his majority opinion for Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919), which outlined the limits of free speech, particularly in war time.

The shift in Holmes’s legal arguments represents the larger tumult over civil liberties that occurred within the United States during the war. Outside of the courtroom through the protests of citizens, the actions of vigilantes and advocacy by the NAACP and the newly established American Civil Liberties Union, the rights of citizens came into sharp focus. As the nation commemorates the centennial marking U.S. entry into World War I, the Law Library and Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress are gathering a panel of five eminent scholars to debate the meaning of the war on civil liberties.

On June 8, 2017, from 2:15 to 4:30 pm, in the Montpelier Room on the sixth floor of the James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E, Washington D.C., former Kluge Chair in American Law and Governance, current Emory University Asa Griggs Candler Professor of law and historian Mary Dudziak will moderate a panel of scholars regarding the intersection of civil liberties, wartime resistance, and citizenship entitled “Rights and Resistance: Civil Liberties during World War I.” In addition to Dudziak, the panel includes University of Texas Law Professor and 2016 Guggenheim fellow David Rabban; Columbia Law professor Jeremy Kessler; former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, former University Provost, and current law professor Geoffrey Stone; and assistant professor of political science at University of Washington Megan Ming Francis.

The event is free and open to the public.  It has been made possible by the James Madison Council, the Library’s private sector advisory council. Tickets are not required.

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