Nearing’s Defense of the Constitutional Right to Dissent 10/24/11

The Power of Nonviolence Writings by Advocates of PeaceThe sixth chapter of The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace contains Scott Nearing‘s 1919 closing argument in defense against criminal charges under the Espionage Act for printing pamphlets that were allegedly in “obstruction to the recruiting and enlistment service of the United States.” during World War I.  The speech is re-printed from his book The Trial of Scott Nearing and the American Socialist Society.

Nearing starts out by defining his pacifism in opposition to the District Attorney’s attempt to define him as a proponent of violence.  He sees pacifism — his opposition to all wars  — as a natural human impulse that he shares with the majority of citizens.  He describes WWI as a waste of “twenty million lives and a hundred and eighty billions of wealth.”  Nearing explains that the danger of war is that it is built on forces that are destructive to civilization: “fear and hate“.  civilization is destroyed because causing one person to kill another destroys “a man’s soul.”

Nearing makes clear that he is not indicted for his being””a student of public affairs“, a Socialist nor a pacifist.  He insists that the judge will charge the jury with the information that Nearing has the right to speak out against a law he considers wrong. And that is what he bases his defense upon:

I may be wrong, utterly wrong, and nobody listen to me, nobody pay attention to me. I have a right to express my opinion.

The judge in the case dismissed the conspiracy charges.  The jury found Nearing “not guilty” of the other two charges against him.  The Socialist Society was found guilty of two charges and fined $3000. 

Debs delivering a speech in Chicago in 1912.
Eugene Debs via Wikipedia

This case was part of a series of indictments of socialists during WWI for counter-military recruitment activities.  The best known defendant was Eugene Debs who served two years (119-1921) in prison during which he ran for President.  The other well-known case is the infamous 1919 Supreme Court decision in Schenck v. United States, which coined the false analogy to “shouting fire in a crowded theater” for opposing enlistment. Howard Zinn, who wrote the forward to this book, compared Schenk’s action to shouting fire outside a burning theater to prevent potential audience members from being endangered.

The free speech right to make truthful, but dissenting, statements goes back to the 1735 colonial trial of jury nullification” target=”_blank”> jury nullification, Zenger was found “not guilty” in contravention of the judge’s instructions.  You will remember that we previously discussed jury nullification in relation to William Penn’s Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe.

Nearing and his wife Helenare also known for their 1950’s books which launched the 1990’s back to nature movement.

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