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Jacob Abrams et al. v. United States is the landmark Supreme Court case in the definition of free speech. Although the 1918 conviction of four Russian Jewish anarchists-for distributing leaflets protesting America's intervention in the Russian revolution-was upheld, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's dissenting opinion (with Justice Louis Brandeis) concerning "clear and present danger" has proved the touchstone of almost all subsequent First Amendment theory and litigation.In Fighting Faiths, Richard Polenberg explores the causes and characters of this dramatic episode in American history. He traces the Jewish immigrant experience, the lives of the convicted anarchists before and after the trials, the careers of the major players in the court cases-men such as Holmes, defense attorney Harry Weinberger, Southern Judge Henry DeLamar Clayton, Jr., and the young J. Edgar Hoover-and the effects of this important case on present-day First Amendment rights.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780801486180
ISBN-10: 0801486181
Format: Paperback
(229mm x 152mm x 27mm)
Pages: 464
Imprint: Cornell University Press
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publish Date: 5-Aug-1999
Country of Publication: United States


US Kirkus Review » A dense history (over 1000 footnotes) of the conviction of five East Harlem anarchists for sedition, and the subsequent landmark dissent in 1919 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that became a guidepost for 50 years of First Amendment decisions. Polenberg (One Nation Divisible, 1979) presents both the intellectual legal battle and a social history of the anarchists. The Jewish anarchists, recent Russian arrivals who eked out sweatshop livings as bookbinders or garment workers, got caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock was a new sedition law enacted at the crest of WW I patriotic fever; the hard place was President Wilson's decision to send US troops to aid Czech soldiers caught in Russia, which the anarchists saw as a ploy to crush their beloved Bolshevik revolution. They tossed some polemical flyers off a tenement roof; the N.Y.C. Bomb Squad quickly found the group, giving them the third-degree. One anarchist died, probably of pneumonia, before the trial. Pacifist defense lawyer Harry Weinberger argued that the flyers were not seditious - in calling upon workers to oppose the Russian invasion, they neither supported the Germans nor advocated the direct violation of laws - but his distinctions made little headway. Conservative Judge Caffey was active enough in the trial to insure that the jury had a choice between guilty and guilty. The conservative Supreme Court upheld the decision 7-2, but Holmes, who had voted against similar defendants, now dissented, asking for a far stricter use of the "clear and present danger" standard. In 1921, the anarchists were deported from US prisons to Russia. A useful, even important account - for those able and willing to wade through the too-thick prose. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Author Biography - Richard Polenberg

Richard Polenberg is Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History Emeritus at Cornell University. He is the author of Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee," "John Henry," and Other Traditional American Folk Songs and Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, The Supreme Court, and Free Speech, and is the editor of In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Security Clearance Hearing, all from Cornell.

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