The Real Freedom of Free Speech

by Scott Nearing


[Ed. Note: In February 1919, Scott Reading was put on trial under the Espionage Act of May 16, 1918 for having written a famous pamphlet, The Great Madness, in 1917. While the US government sent many pacifists and activists to prison under this act, not one actual agent of the enemy of the day (Germany) was ever convicted... The last lines of the pamphlet read: "The plutocracy and the democracy cannot exist side by side. If the plutocracy wins, dollars rule; if the democracy wins, people rule. There can be no alternative and no compromise. During the past three years of struggle, the democracy has lost every move. The power of the plutocracy has been strengthened immeasurably." Sounds familiar? Here are excerpts of his closing argument.]
Gentlemen, I am on trial here before you, charged with obstructing the recruiting and enlistment service to the detriment of the service, to the injury of the service, and with attempting and causing insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and the refusal of duty within the military and naval forces ...

The prosecution has not been able to show a single instance in which recruiting was obstructed ... a single instance in which insubordination, disloyalty, and refusal of duty were caused. It has been 17 or 18 months since this pamphlet was published. During that time there have been about 19,000 copies of it loose in the country, and the prosecution was unable to bring before you a single instance where these things have actually occurred. ...

So that the only act that is alleged against me is an expression of my opinions: writing in this book and expressing my opinions on the St. Louis Proclamation, of the Socialist Party platform. ... I am charged with writing and having sent that writing to a publisher and had it published ... therefore if I am convicted under this indictment I will be convicted for an expression of my opinions. There is no other evidence before you except my opinions. ...

I believe that democracy is a better form of social organization than aristocracy, or monarchy or any other form of government that the world has ever known. Discussion is one of the purposes of democracy. Democracy means that a people talking a question over, thinking it out and reaching a decision upon it, may then register that decision.

The only way to have intelligent public opinion is to have discussion, and the moment you check discussion you destroy democracy. ... The only way in which we can preserve democracy is to reserve to every citizen of the democracy the right to express the convictions that he has: the right to be right and the right to be wrong. The Constitution does not guarantee us only the right to be correct, we have a right to be honest and in error. And the views that I have expressed in this pamphlet I expressed honestly. I believe they are right. The future will show whether or not I was correct, but under the laws, as I understand it, and under the Constitution as I understand it, every citizen in this country has a right to express himself — subject always to the law, subject always to the limitations which the law prescribes — has a right to express himself on public questions. The moment any administration enters and shuts down that right, that moment democracy ceases to exist. ...

I am an American, my ancestors have been Americans for more than 200 years. As an American I have certain rights and certain duties. Among my rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution are the rights of free speech and the free press; the right to speak and print the convictions that I have. It was for those rights that our ancestors left Europe and came here. It is for those rights that some of us are contending today.

I do not care for the prosperity of this country if we are going to have gag laws. I care not for the wealth of this country if we are going to be forbidden to have free speech, and an opportunity for expressing our minds and expressing our opinions and discussing the great issues that are before us. ... In America we want liberty. And I believe that as an American citizen, that is the dearest possession for which I can contend. That is my right constitutionally and legally. But if there were no constitution and no law, it would be my right as a member of a democratic society.

... Citizenship involves duties as well as rights. ... When I believe that our country is in danger, our common life and our common liberties are in peril, then it is my duty to warn you, it is my duty to speak out and continue to speak out as long as I have an opportunity to do so....

Gentlemen, I want to say to you that I want to see America free. I want to see liberty, opportunity and democracy here, as well as in every other country on earth. As long as America is not free, you are not free and I am not free. ...

I have expressed my hopes, my ideals, my ambitions for liberty in America, and for brotherhood and peace among all people of the world. I have done what I could, and for the time being the matter is in your hands.


[Scott Nerring was acquitted.]


[Source: A Scott Nearing Reader: The Good Life in Bad Times by Steve Sherman (Editor), Helen K. Nearing, Scarecrow Press, 1989; ISBN: 0810821443. p89 - The full text of Nearing's closing argument can be read on the Web at the site of the Veterans For Peace, Gainesville, Florida, Chapter 78. These excerpts come from the Web site of Jean Hay, a political columnist, investigative reporter, book author, farmer, and political candidate, who lives on a 30-acre farm in Dixmont, Maine, where she and her husband grow vegetables and raspberries for two farmers' markets.]


Scott Nearing [1883-1983], was a social critic of imperialism, a radical whose ideas and opinions led him to be ostracized by the US society after World War I. He lost his various teaching jobs, the main press spurned him, publishers refused his work and he slowly withdrew to a quieter life in Vermont and finally in Maine where he and his wife lived with few ties to the market economy. He is known for having spawned the 'conscientious self-reliance' that has inspired many modern homesteaders. Nearing dated the end of the American Republic and the beginning of Empire to the 1899 Philippine War. As he wrote in The American Empire (New York: Rand School of Social Science, 1921), "The end of the nineteenth century saw the end of the Republic about which men like Jefferson and Lincoln wrote and dreamed. The New Century marked the opening of a new epoch -- the beginning of world dominion for the United States." (the full text of "The Beginnings of World Dominion" can be read on boondocksnet.com. Nearing wrote more than 50 books and monographs on social issues during his life.

•  Nearing's books at the Good Life Center, the last homestead of Helen and Scott Nearing on Penobscot Bay in Harborside, Maine.
•  Nearing's books at Amazon.com (please visit the Good Life Center first)

Published under the provision of U.S. Code, Title 17, section 107.


This Week's Internal Links

The New Kind of Education - by Jan Baughman

The Dictatorship of Bullshit - by Stephen Gowans

Democracy? When? - by Stephen Gowans

Back to Crete - by Andreas Toupadakis

Talk About Demons! - by Gilles d'Aymery

Sweeping the Truth Under the DU Rug - by Dr. Vladimir Ajdacic & Dr. Predrag Jaksic

Lie Has Short Legs - by Pedja Zoric

The Potter of Gold - by Alma A. Hromic

A Trip to the Garden - by Andreas Toupadakis

Ending or Beginning? - by Milo Clark

The Making of a Radical (Excerpt) - by Scott Nearing

Uniform Engendered - by Sandy Lulay

Three Quotes to Ponder - by R. D. Laing & Derrick Jensen


Published November 26, 2001
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