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John Reed Biography



"Clear and Present Danger" or "All is Fair in Love and War"


Reds: Lenin and Marx and Mao, oh my!

Here's a scenario to contemplate. You're at the grand premiere of a major motion picture on a Friday night. The theater is jammed packed. Just as the lights start to dim, Joe Shmoe decides to exercise his First Amendment right by shouting "Fire!" at the top of his lungs - even though there isn't one. Screams pierce the air as men, women and children make a mad dash for the door. Everyone who trips and falls gets trampled, and many are injured - some of them severely. Here's the question: Should Shmoe be punished for his actions despite his constitutional right to rattle his vocal chords?

Let's think about this. Do we have the right to say anything we want, any time we want? I'm willing to bet that just about every American values their freedom of speech, but should that freedom be absolute, or are there certain situations in which the government should silence us?

Jacinda can't get enough of John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World

The Supreme Court faced this dilemma in the early 20th century and ultimately ruled that the government could, in fact, take away a citizen's right to speak if they posed a "clear and present danger" to others. Using the fire scenario, they sentenced a man named Charles Schenck to prison for utilizing his First Amendment right. Only, Schenck didn't shout "Fire" in a crowded theater. He simply handed out flyers protesting the war.

World War I may have had lots of popular support, but there were tens of thousands of Americans - including pacifists, socialists, anarchists and communists -- who opposed it. The most vocal groups caused a great deal of grief for the government, since they needed volunteers to fight the war in Europe. Arguing that such groups threatened national security, Congress passed a series of laws to silence them. The Espionage Act of 1917 made it illegal to interfere with the recruitment or enlistment of soldiers, and the Sedition Act made it a crime to print or publish anything negative about the government, the flag or military uniforms.

Revolutionary Readings

Soon after, the United States government began imprisoning Americans for exercising their freedom of expression. The Rev. Clarence Waldron, for instance, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for telling his Bible Studies class that "Christians could take no part in the war." Socialist Eugene V. Debs received a 10 year prison sentence for uttering these two sentences that denounced capitalism, praised socialism and criticized the war in a speech: "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles…. I would oppose war if I stood alone."

However, it was Charles Schenck who inspired the famous Supreme Court decision. Two months after the Espionage Act was passed, he printed up 15,000 flyers that compared the draft to slavery. This is "a monstrous deed against humanity in the interests of financiers of Wall Street," he wrote. "Do not submit to intimidation." He was promptly arrested in Philadelphia, but appealed to the highest court in the land, claiming that his First Amendment rights had been violated, but the Supreme Court didn't buy it. In his now-famous court opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

    The most stringent protection of free speech does not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger….
Stephanie, Jacinda and Michael brush up on their Marx

In the eyes of the court, criticizing the draft posed such a danger. Schenck spent the next six months in prison.

Activists weren't the only ones who fell prey to the Sedition and Espionage Acts. Journalists, whose very livelihoods depended on the First Amendment, also suffered. Some even had to flee the country to escape prison sentences - the most famous of whom was John Reed. (He led such a fascinating life, Warren Beatty directed and starred in a film about him called Reds.)

After graduating from Harvard, backpacking across Europe, and writing a great deal of poetry, Reed got a job with the investigative newsmagazine called American Magazine. His colleagues included muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens. In the early years, he spent a lot of time in New York City's Greenwich Village, hanging out with artists, philosophers and other writers. Under Steffens' influence, though, Reed became increasingly aware of America's social problems. In 1913, he started writing for a leftist publication called The Masses and was arrested the following year for speaking out on behalf of striking silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey. Soon after, he was sent to cover Pancho Villa's revolution down in Mexico. The things he saw there both inspired and impassioned him. His fate as a revolutionary reporter was sealed.

Talking politics at the Paris Commune in the West Village
Reed fixed his eyes on Russia next. The year was 1917, and the country was undergoing the biggest worker's revolution in history - communism. The ultimate goal of a communist society is to eliminate all private property, so that the collective shares everything. People would work for the good of the society rather than the weight of their wallets. These are all noble ideas, but unfortunately, no country has been able to achieve this utopian state thus far - and millions have perished in the process.

Reed went to Russia to cover the events as a reporter, but the people he met tugged at his heartstrings. The articles he wrote for The Masses grew increasingly sympathetic and seemingly radical. Since communism clashes with our nation's capitalist ideology, the government decided to put a stop to it. The Masses was indicted and sent to trial for violating the Sedition Act. Reed made it back to the United States in time for a second trial in April 1918, but was acquitted. However, other indictments were quick to follow, and he eventually fled to Finland with a fake passport. There, he was imprisoned four months before authorities exchanged him for Finnish prisoners of war being held in Russia. Since he couldn't return to the United States, he devoted his time and energy to giving revolutionary speeches in Moscow.

After being accused of sedition and espionage, John Reed and other revolutionaries fled to Russia
Keep in mind that the only thing Reed did "wrong" was praise a different style of government with his pen. That was enough for the United States to prevent him from seeing his wife, friends and homeland again. While living in Russia, Reed caught typhus and died soon after. He is the only American buried inside the Kremlin walls.

Learning about Schenck and Reed made me curious about the present-day journalism. Do activists and journalists have an easier time going against the grain in the 21st century? To find out, I called an organization that has been persecuted since its inception -- the Communist Party of the United States of America. Founded in 1919, the CPUSA now boasts about 20,000 members and its own newspaper. I asked Terrie Albano, a member of the National Board, what it's like to be a communist in a capitalist society:

"Communists have always been the victims of crackdowns on freedom of speech. Sometimes, we're the first victims. Many of our leaders have been jailed, imprisoned or blacklisted," she said. While Albano's freedom of speech hasn't been tampered with directly, she has seen it happen to others. "All too often, freedom of speech is given to those who rule and not to those who are trying to change things. Take strikers on a picket line. They are always being jailed. What happened to their freedom of speech, their right to assembly?"


Joan Hirsch, the manager of a communist bookstore called Revolution Books, cited the case of C. Clark Kissinger as another example. A journalist for Revolutionary Worker newspaper and a long-time activist, Kissinger has dedicated the past few years of his life to the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal - a former Black Panther and journalist who is on Death Row for killing a Philadelphia police officer. In July 1999, Kissinger was one of 96 protesters arrested during a Free Mumia rally in Philadelphia. When he refused to plead guilty and demanded a trial, he was sentenced to one year of supervised probation. This meant that, among other things, Kissinger was forbidden from associating with felons, including Mumia, and traveling outside his federal court district without the permission of his probation officer.

Revolutionaries in Russia ate lots of sausages

When the Republican National Convention came around, however, Kissinger couldn't resist. After his request for permission to travel to the convention was denied, he decided to go anyway. He gave a riveting speech about Mumia outside the convention walls and was promptly arrested. He is currently serving a 90-day sentence for violating the terms of his parole.

"It's the powers that be that determine freedom of speech, most definitely," Hirsch said. So this takes us back to our earlier debate. Are there some instances when the government should be allowed to silence our voices, or should freedom of speech be an absolute? I can understand silencing false cries of fire, but what about legitimate screams of protest?


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Pancho Villa: The man, the myth, the legend
Neda - Anarchy and chaos in the USA!
Nick - The long road to world peace
Irene - When war intrudes upon love and health