On Monday, February 3, Professor Ernest F. Freeburg of the University of Tennessee gave a lecture on American civil liberties to a crowded Convocation Hall filled with students, faculty, professors, and community members interested in learning about the life of Eugene V. Debs. Dr. Woody Register introduced Freeburg after explaining that this lecture was the second installment of a number of lectures addressing free speech and “historical silence.” The first of these lectures came in November when Benjamin Wise spoke on William Alexander Percy and his experience in WWI. Register gave a bit of preliminary information on Eugene Debs, explaining that as an American socialist in the early 20th century he was one of the most loved, and most hated, figures of his time, yet his legacy is often overlooked despite the importance of his fight for freedom of speech.
Freeburg opened his lecture by showing the audience a presidential campaign poster of Eugene Debs with a picture of him that was taken in prison. He explained that this image of Debs is what initially intrigued him to better understand who this man was. In 1920 Debs ran for president as the Socialist candidate and received 1 million votes, an interesting statistic considering that this era was a period of strong conservatism. Freeburg then backtracked to the beginning of Debs’s Socialist endeavors. Early in his political career Debs was a democrat that held high regard for laborers, even helping them to organize strikes and protests. After Debs was imprisoned for the first time, he was introduced to Socialism and realized that his views aligned with this school of thought. In 1900, he founded the American Socialist Party and ran for president every four years simply to spread the word about Socialism. Essentially, Debs wanted to eliminate private ownership of the means of production by continuing to organize and assemble laborers.
When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, Debs and the Socialists were the first to protest the draft. The U.S. government feared that figures like Debs would cause anti-war sentiments in the minds of many Americans and passed the Espionage Act. This act essentially disallowed any sort of speech against U.S involvement in the war. In 1918 Debs was giving a speech at a Socialist picnic in Canton, Ohio when he was arrested and charged with “inciting others to crime” because his speech was suspected to influence young men to avoid the draft. In 1919 a court case known as the Schenck Case had an outcome that significantly effected Debs’s situation. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that depending on certain circumstances, freedom of speech is different in times of war than in times of peace. Because this decision and Deb’s situation received so much attention all over the country, Justice Holmes overturned Schenck in Abrams v. U.S later that year.
Freeburg’s central focus on Debs was that while Americans often do not see Socialism in a positive light, Debs was a major figure in American Socialism and at the same time he left a legacy that allowed freedom of speech to exist in a time when some wanted to limit it.