Fight for Free Speech During World War I

7 p.m..  April 25 - Debs and WWI

University of Tennessee historian Ernest F. Freeberg will mark America's entry into World War I by revisiting one of its greatest opponents: Socialist and one-time McHenry County prisoner, Eugene Debs. Freeberg's lecture, titled “Eugene V. Debs and the Fight for Free Speech in World War I,” is rooted in his award-winning book, Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, The Great War, and the Right to Dissent. His 2008 effort was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, and winner of the David J. Langum Sr. Prize in American Legal History and the Eli M. Oboler Award from the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Roundtable.

The talk explores an important legacy of World War One, the fight for civil liberties waged by those who worked to free American socialist leader Eugene Debs from prison. In 1919 Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for speaking against the U.S. decision to join the fighting in Europe. The incident sparked a national debate over the meaning of the First Amendment and the government’s power to silence its critics. The fight to free Debs raised fundamental questions about the balance between individual liberty and national security, and helped to expand the right to protest against war ever since.

Two years later Debs ran for president and won over a million votes without ever leaving his Atlanta jail cell. Most cast their vote for him not in support of his politics, but of his right as an American to speak freely, even in time of war. Though eventually pardoned, Debs’ imprisonment sparked an argument that still rages: is protest in times of war a democratic right or an act of treason?

Freeberg, who chairs the university's history department, was educated at Middlebury College and received his doctorate. from Emory University. He is a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, has served on the editorial board of the History of Education Quarterly, and has produced a number of public radio documentaries on historical themes.

Doors to the McHenry County Historical Society Museum, 6422 Main St., Union, open at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $10 at the door. The lecture is being co-sponsored by the McHenry County Historical Society, Woodstock Celebrates and the Illinois Labor History Society.

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