Today marks the 98th anniversary of the controversial case of Abrams v. United States. In Abrams, the Supreme Court upheld the convictions of five defendants under the Espionage Act of 1917. The Court expressly rejected the defendant’s argument that their first amendment rights had been violated by the Espionage Act. This case is particularly noteworthy because revered Justice Oliver Wendell Homes; the author of the opinions which had originally upheld the Constitutionality of criminalizing free speech against the war effort in three prior Court cases, dissented against the majority.
The case behind Abrams was a product of a different time in American culture and history. On August 12, 1918, just three months before the end of fighting in WWI, Hyman Rosansky was arrested for throwing flyers out of the 4th floor of a hat factory. The flyers, one in English and one in Yiddish called for a general strike by workers, a reduction in the production of munitions being sent to aid White Army soldiers fighting Soviet forces in the Russian Revolution. Police arrested Mr. Rosansky for violating the Sedition Act of 1917, which criminalized the “willfully utter, print, write, or publish, any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States, or willfully urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of the production of things necessary to the war efforts.”. Police interrogated Mr. Rosansky for weeks. With Mr. Rosansky’s help, police also arrested Mollie Steimer, Jacob Abrams, Hyman Lachowsky, Jacob Schwartz, Gabriel Prober, and Samuel Lipman. The group was all Russian, Jewish immigrants to America and avowed anarchist.