Stories Chosen For You
Nothing divides Americans like the question of free speech: What it means, who deserves it and who does not. Conservatives like to complain about being "censored" or "canceled" for their attacks on LGBTQ rights or mask mandates, but lately have started trying to impose all kinds of restrictions on speech in education, especially on issues of gender identity, sexual orientation and race.
This article first appeared in Salon.
When it comes to the legendary Eugene Victor Debs, however — a leading labor and political activist in the late 19th and early 20th century — there's just no question: He was a martyr for free speech and a case study in overcoming oppression. When Debs was sent to prison for speaking truth to "the man" — and in this case, it really was The Man, meaning President Woodrow Wilson — he fought back by deciding to run for president himself.
Our story begins on June 16, 1918, on a balmy afternoon in Canton, Ohio, where Debs was scheduled to speak at the state's Socialist Convention, and then at a picnic — in fact, one named for him. Debs was then a 62-year-old veteran of the labor movement, who had helped found the American Railway Union (ARU) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and had gradually moved leftward out of the Democratic Party to various socialist organizations. In the 1900 presidential election, he was the Social Democratic Party's presidential nominee; after that party imploded, he was the Socialist Party candidate in 1904, 1908 and 1912. Voter turnout in that last election was so low that although Debs only got about 900,000 votes, that was about 6% of the total — probably the most impressive electoral performance by a left-wing independent in American history. (Ralph Nader got almost 2.9 million votes in the 2000 election, for example, but that was only 2.7% of the total.)
That election made Debs into something of a celebrity, and America's most powerful socialist, articulating an anti-capitalist, anti-corporate ideology that would inspire generations yet to come (including Bernie Sanders, who took Debs as something of a role model). By 1918, however, Debs was preoccupied by foreign policy. After considerable hesitation, the U.S. had committed troops to fight in World War I, which Debs believed was driven by irrational nationalist rhetoric and a combination of imperialism and capitalism run amok. (The term "military-industrial complex" was not yet in use, but Debs would surely have embraced it.) To him, the so-called Great War was about the working class suffering and dying for the benefit of the wealthy few.
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Unsurprisingly, Debs was also opposed to the military draft, which put him at odds with Woodrow Wilson's administration, which had just passed an infamous law called the Espionage Act, which, among other things, made it a federal crime to interfere with conscription. When Debs spoke in Canton on that June afternoon, the audience included agents from the Department of Justice, eager to see if they could ensnare him in something that might conceivably violate the law. Debs was aware of the risk, warned his audience that he had to be "extremely careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and more prudent as to how I say it." Maybe he was daring the agents to come after him for whatever he said, and they took the bait, as did a federal prosecutor named Edwin Wertz, after Debs said this:
They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and slaughter yourselves at their command. You have never had a voice in the war. The working class who make the sacrifices, who shed the blood, have never yet had a voice in declaring war.
As soon as he was charged under the Espionage Act, Debs knew he would be convicted. It was essentially a political show trial, an attempt by Wilson to intimidate left-wing critics into silence, in a wartime climate of patriotism Americans were even more suspicious of the left than usual. Debs refused to call defense witnesses, speaking directly to the jury to explain why he was unwilling to play the court's game. After his inevitable conviction, he delivered a statement to the court that would later be immortalized:
Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions …
Debs' 1920 campaign wasn't so much about anything he said or did as about the symbolic importance of "Prisoner 9653" running for president.
On the day Debs went to prison, a protest march in Cleveland was attacked by police, leading to the May Day riots of 1919. The Socialist Party nominated him once again as its presidential candidate, although he had not run in 1916 and likely hadn't intended to in 1920. Debs wrote numerous statements from his prison cell, detailing his views on everything from the war to class inequality. But his campaign wasn't based on anything he said or did, but the symbolic importance of the imprisoned free-thinker running for the highest office in the land. Supporters didn't just ask people to vote for Debs; they told them to vote for "Prisoner 9653." Word quickly spread that Debs, by all accounts a kind and courtly man in his personal interactions, was highly popular among both prison staff and his fellow inmates.
Of course Debs didn't win — he was running as a third-party candidate, after all — but he received just over 913,000 votes, slightly more than he had in 1912. Notably, that was only about half as much of the total popular vote (3.4%) as it had been eight years earlier, largely because the electorate was much larger: The 1920 election was the first in which all American women had the right to vote, following the passage of the 19th Amendment.
That was Eugene Debs' last presidential campaign. He declined to run in 1924, facing failing health, and died in 1926. If it had been up to Wilson, Debs might have died in prison — but it was the next president, conservative Republican Warren G. Harding (winner of that 1920 election), who ultimately let him go. After taking office, Harding sent Attorney General Harry Daugherty to discuss terms for a potential pardon or clemency with Debs. On Christmas Eve of 1921, Harding announced he would commute the sentences of 24 political prisoners from the Wilson era, and that Debs would be among them.
Harding made a point of criticizing Debs in his public statement, stating that he was guilty as convicted and calling him "a dangerous man calculated to mislead the unthinking and affording excuse for those with criminal intent." Harding said he was extending clemency because of Debs' age and physical frailty, and because he "was by no means, however, as rabid and outspoken in his expressions as many others, and but for his prominence and the resulting far-reaching effect of his words, very probably might not have received the sentence he did."
As Debs walked out of the Atlanta Penitentiary on Christmas Day 1921, he and his brother heard hundreds of prisoners standing at the bars of their cells cheering for him. Harding then asked for a private meeting with Debs — no reporters allowed — where he reportedly told him, "Well, I've heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now glad to meet you personally."
There are many lessons to be drawn from Debs' story, but perhaps the most important one is so obvious that it needs to be stated directly. When we talk about free speech, there is a big difference between people who merely face criticism for what they say and those who are actually persecuted or oppressed for it If people write mean things about your Netflix special, or an online platform decides not to host a particular video, that's not oppression or censorship. But journalists targeted for violence over their reporting, or teachers who lose their jobs for telling the truth about American history, really are being oppressed, censored and silenced. Eugene Debs refused to shut up or follow the rules, and paid the price. That makes him a free-speech hero whether you agree with his views or not.
Donald Trump, Jr. lashed out at public school teachers as he ranted in defense of guns following Tuesday's school shooting massacre in Uvalde, Texas.
"It's the gun, it's not the sociopath wielding it, folks," he said in a video posted to Rumble. "If it wasn't for the gun, this kid would be a well-adjusted, reasonable individual, he'd be a wonderful human being, right?"
"He wouldn't have done the exact same thing with a bat or a bomb or some sort of improvised device or a machete, he's a great kid, don't judge him," he said.
The 18-year-old suspect, who allegedly murdered 19 children and 2 teachers, reportedly was armed with a Daniel Defense AR-15 rifle and 1,6000 rounds of ammunition.
"We can't acknowledge what the actual causes are, it's not a drug-addict mother and a missing father and a lack of religion, indoctrination programs in our schools, crazy teachers teaching some of the crap I've talking about in these videos. It's none of those things," he said. "It never ends man."
"Our own stupidity, apathy, wokeness, laziness, that's the problem, folks, and until we fix that, the rest is just talk and crap," he said.
Trump, Jr. said, "no one can admit somebody is actually a piece of garbage and screwed up."
Anger over the National Rifle Association blocking gun safety legislation following yet another fatal mass shooting boiled over at TEDxPortland event.
"Organizers of the lecture and music event TEDxPortland angered some audience members by giving independent candidate for governor Betsy Johnson, who in the past earned an A rating from the National Rifle Association, an unannounced spot in its event lineup Saturday," The Oregonian reported. "The group also appeared to have run afoul of IRS rules that prohibit tax-exempt non-profits from giving any political candidate preferential treatment."
The newspaper noted Johnson could potentially have some wiggle-room as the has not yet officially qualified for the ballot by collecting signatures but noted it is "something no one doubts an established officeholder with her financial backing will accomplish."
"Johnson, who voted against gun safety bills as a Democrat in the Oregon Senate and mentioned being a gun owner during her TEDxPortland talk at the Moda Center Saturday afternoon, drew jeers, boos and shouted demands for gun control during her time on stage," the newspaper noted.
David Rae, the nonprofit's president, was interviewed by The Oregonian.
The newspaper reported, "By inviting the career politician with nearly $9 million in backing from Oregon powerbrokers including Nike co-founder Phil Knight and a host of timber millionaires, he said, 'We are just trying to offer an intimate conversation in front of 7,000 people with a courageous woman, right?' In the days since a shooter used an assault weapon to brutally kill 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school, much of the national conversation has revolved around gun safety legislation, which made the timing of Johnson’s appearance at the non-political event particularly fraught."
Tina Kotek is the Democratic Party nominee for governor and Christine Drazan is the GOP standard bearer.
KGW reporter Evan Watson posted photos and video from the event on social media:
\u201cTEDxPortland: In a surprise and unannounced decision, #TEDxPDX brings non-affiliated Oregon Governor candidate Betsy Johnson on stage for an interview\n\nAfter a few questions, audience members shout for her to address gun control, pushing her on her past record #Audac10us @KGWNews\u201d— Evan Watson (@Evan Watson) 1653763100
\u201cPART 2: Johnson mentioned being a gun owner and representing gun owners in her district before turning the answer to thoughts on the mental health crisis, which sparked some cheers but also more frustration for some #TEDxPDX @KGWNews #Audac10us\u201d— Evan Watson (@Evan Watson) 1653763100
\u201cPART 4: The #TEDxPDX host says they\u2019re not going to solve gun control in 4 minutes, adding this is \u201cnot a debate, this is not @KGWNews.\u201d\n\nStill, a tense crowd at the Moda Center. Johnson was not listed on the speaker agenda or in the program for today\u2019s schedule.\u201d— Evan Watson (@Evan Watson) 1653763100
\u201cFor context, here\u2019s our latest @KGWNews report on the Oregon Governor candidates and where they stand on gun control.\n\nJohnson said today that the type of gun \u201cdoesn\u2019t dictate its lethality.\u201d The NRA gave her an A rating in 2018. \nhttps://t.co/wZ2WEj1IKu\u201d— Evan Watson (@Evan Watson) 1653763100