(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One hundred years ago this week, the U.S. was firmly in the grip of the Red Scare. “All Police Power Turned Upon Reds,” screamed the front-page headline of the New York Times on July 4, 1919. And, indeed, around Independence Day the police power was fully unleashed against the radicals, who had recently sent a series of bombs to public officials. But there was a lot more to the Red Scare than standing guard against bombings. It was the ideas themselves that the nation sought to restrict.
How little things have changed. In the summer of 1919, public and private power were turned against ideas considered dangerous. The nation is now gripped by a similar fervor. True, the censored views are those hated by the left rather than those hated by the right. But today’s campaigns to ban and remove and deplatform target the same enemy as yesterday’s: the ability to communicate those dangerous ideas.
In the summer of 1919, after first denying it, the New York Public Library admitted to possessing a copy of Mikhail Bakunin’s “God and the State.” Perhaps worse, as the New York Times reported, the city’s librarians, discovering that they were missing some issues of the radical newsletter “Bread and Freedom,” had actually tried to fill out their collection.
During that same summer, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer proposed extending the notorious wartime sedition act to peacetime. The goal — as a young government lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover noted in a memorandum — was to prevent “the actual printing and sale” of radical literature.(1) Federal agents, unconcerned about legal authority, seized from the mails literature they deemed seditious, in order to prevent its delivery.
Not just organizations but individuals were targets. A few years earlier, concerned about the “radical” views of the economist Scott Nearing, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business had dismissed him from its faculty. During that Red Summer of 1919, the state of New York raided Nearing’s new office at the Rand School, a socialist educational institution in Manhattan, searching for — no surprise — radical literature.
Which brings us to the summer of 2019. We, too, live in an era when activists are determined to prevent the circulation of dangerous ideas. Today’s preferred method is the ban — from campus, from social media, from internet search results. But it’s the same mischief.
One might argue that the goals pursued by today’s censors are more worthy than those of the Red hunters. Maybe so. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that sometimes the tool rather than the goal is the problem. Once you decide that speech is a privilege available only to those who don’t offend the values of the movement, it’s a short and easy step to cheering as a mob roughs up a journalist whose views the movement deems objectionable.
The mobs were cheered on in 1919 too, as they broke up Socialist marches on May Day and beat up radical speakers and journalists. An editorial in the Austin (Texas) Statesman blamed the victims: “Everywhere the red flag appeared it stirred the people to anger against those bearing it.” The Washington Post, too, knew which side was at fault. The paper’s editors wrote that the “violence and bloodshed” of the riots were the predictable result of the effort to spread a radical message that “invited the indignant resistance” of “loyal citizens.”
But the problem, argued the Post, went deeper: “A stop must be put to the lying propaganda preached by men of reputed intellect, which incites mental defectives to deeds of violence.” The time had come to prevent the radicals from spreading their “vicious and malicious lie.” It sounds an awful lot like arguments made today against the spread of fake news.
It’s true, of course, that there’s a difference between the pursuit of censorship by government and the same behavior by private actors who happen to own the means of mass communication. Surely private actors have the right to promote what messages they like and deny forums to others.(2)
Perhaps — but during the Red Scare era, too, private actors who owned the means of communication tried to prevent the dissemination of dangerous ideas. Mainstream publishers became loath to bring out radical volumes. Privately controlled print shops also got involved — such as the several white-owned presses that refused to print a special edition of the black-owned Chicago Defender during the city’s 1919 race riot (again, the basis was the prevention of what we now call fake news.)
And the practice didn’t end when the era did. I’ve mentioned before in this space the travails of my great-uncle, hounded and imprisoned by the federal government during the 1940s and 1950s for his Communist views. Back then, as during the Red Scare, the great technology of communication was the printing press. Most were privately owned. And one by one, they refused to print books or pamphlets deemed radical. A private means of communication open to everyone else was denied to Communists or those thought to have Communist leanings.
The publication of radical views was driven underground — in some cases literally underground, for the FBI investigated reports that my great-uncle was part of a cell using a clandestine mimeograph machine in a Washington basement.
In short, the notion that we combat wrong ideas by restricting their spread isn’t an exciting new idea. It’s a vicious and oppressive old one. Between those who pursue it today and those who pursued it in the past there is little to choose.
A final point about the Red Scare of 1919. Eventually the liberal establishment found its voice. A team of lawyers including future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter published a report critical of government efforts to target the so-called “radicals.” The House of Representatives offered Palmer the opportunity to testify in response. The attorney general was unrepentant: “I apologize for nothing that the Department of Justice has done in this matter. I glory in it. I point with pride and enthusiasm to the results of that work.”
Which was then and is now the heart of the problem. Proud and enthusiastic certainty about the rightness of your cause does not absolve you of responsibility for the wrongness of your methods. I’m not saying that no speech is ever dangerous and hateful. I’m saying that, during this 100th anniversary of the Red Summer, we should remember that how we achieve our goals is as important as their achievement.
Happy Independence Day.
(1) For these and other examples, see chapter 3 of this book as well as pages 176 to 177 of this book. Another excellent source is this book.
(2) If you doubt that corporations have First Amendment rights, you’re presumably appalled by censorship by tech companies.
To contact the author of this story: Stephen L. Carter at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.