The price of speech

Clem Work explores Missoula’s seditious history


“We are done with the days of a divided allegiance in this broad land of liberty. With our sacred honor and our liberties at stake, there can be but two classes of American citizens, patriots and traitors!”

Skip ahead more than a century, and though the language is less flowery, the message is much the same: “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”

Former Montana Congressman Tom Stout delivered the first statement at a parade in Lewistown shortly after America’s entry into World War I in 1917. The second came from President George Bush, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.

Comparisons like this one made Clem Work, director of UM journalism school’s graduate studies, feel a bit uneasy as he researched his Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West, published Oct. 15 by the University of New Mexico Press.

“I actually felt hairs on the back of my neck raise when I came across certain phrases,” Work says. “People were saying the same damn thing! It was just impossible to miss the parallels.”

Work’s book traces the perversion of patriotism in the early 20th-century West. Montana, it turns out, played a particularly virulent role: The state enacted a sedition law in 1918 that Work calls “the most restrictive anti-speech law in the history of the country,” at least since the national Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The same year, influential Montana congressmen successfully pushed through a national sedition law virtually identical to Montana’s.

At home, Montana banned the German language in schools and churches, which led to book-burnings in the streets. In the courtroom, war dissenters were ordered to pay up to $20,000 and sentenced to as many as 20 years in jail. On the sidewalks, they were threatened with lynchings, made to kiss the American flag, and dragged before their neighbors when they resisted purchasing Liberty Bonds.

Much of the action went on right here in Missoula. In 1909, a young orator for the Industrial Workers of the World named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn began speaking downtown. Standing on a makeshift soapbox, Flynn appealed to homeless, hungry workers in the lumber and mining industries, railing against capitalism’s abuses. Flynn was soon joined by legendary IWW agitator Frank Little, and when the pair began to draw notice with their fiery speeches and free literature, police began enforcing Missoula’s ordinance against street speaking. Little was hauled off to jail, as were replacements who stood and read from the Declaration of Independence. Flynn telegraphed to Spokane for reinforcements, and within days hundreds of IWW members—Wobblies—poured in. The spectacle began to draw crowds, who watched as men stood up, began their speeches with “Fellow workers and friends…,” and were promptly arrested. Nearly 100 were locked in Missoula’s jails, demanding jury trials, and when hundreds more marched through downtown, town leaders began to grasp the scope of the battle. City Council declared that people could speak when and where they pleased, and the first free speech fight came to an end. Flynn and the IWW used this same technique successfully in Spokane and other towns across the West.

By 1915 or so, Work says, those who viewed protesting laborers as pests were inclined to think of them as rats rather than mosquitoes. The Wobblies spoke against America’s participation in World War I, saying it was good for industrial financiers, not common men. The federal government, through its Committee for Public Information, grabbed the hearts and minds of Americans and steered them toward the war effort, Work says, managing “to turn what had been lukewarm support of the war to what has been called a white-hot mass.”

“It kind of spilled over into something horrible, and nasty, and ugly,” he says.

The catalyst for Montana’s sedition law came when the state’s sole federal judge, George Bourquin, refused to convict a rancher under the national Espionage Act for his unpatriotic statements. Then one night Little was seized from his Butte bed and lynched by vigilantes sick of his bold rumblings. Under the strange logic that average citizens wouldn’t be compelled to take justice into their own hands if the government prosecuted sedition, the call for a sedition law grew louder. Newspapers across the state also played a prominent role in promoting the idea; Work writes that the Daily Missoulian was the first paper in the state to editorialize in favor of a sedition law. Gov. Sam Stewart called a special session and the Legislature unanimously approved making it illegal to say or publish anything “disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous, slurring or abusive” about the U.S. form of government, its Constitution, soldiers, flag or war. And while the law applied specifically to wartime, a peacetime sedition law was quickly passed in Montana at war’s end. Though sedition laws were challenged, the U.S. Supreme Court continually backed them, saying that “dangerous speech” threatened national security. More than 40 Montanans were convicted under the state law.

It wasn’t until 1927 that Justices Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes successfully altered the court’s definition of free speech, and Brandeis issued his classic opinion declaring that, “It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” Since then, recognition that free speech includes dissent has become entrenched in additional court rulings and the minds of the American public, though in 2002 a First Amendment Center poll found that 49 percent thought “the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.” (That number dropped to 23 percent in 2005.)

Today isn’t far removed from the days when free speech was anything but, Work says, and he’s been surprised to discover that few recall Montana’s prominent role in the persecution of sedition. That’s one of the reasons he brought forth the tale, along with stories of Montanans whose loose tongues and drunken slips resulted in ruination.

“This is a huge cautionary tale. What happened in the generation of our grandfathers wasn’t that long ago,” he says. “Under the right set of circumstances, could that notion once again prevail? I hate to think of it. I think the chances are minuscule, but I’m not going to say they’re zero.”

Work will read from his book, Darkest Before Dawn, Oct. 14, at 7 p.m. at Fact & Fiction.


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