In December 1925, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith pardoned Benjamin Gitlow, a Socialist Party activist, labor reformer, and former New York Assemblyman. In 1920, Gitlow had been convicted of criminal anarchy for publishing The Revolutionary Age, a socialist manifesto.
Following the pardon, a New York Times headline proclaimed “Gitlow, Set Free, Rejoins Radicals.” The story quoted Captain George L. Darte, Adjutant General of the Military Order of the World War, who called the pardon a deplorable miscarriage of justice and questioned Smith’s judgment in liberating a man who deliberately preaches the doctrines of revolution, anarchy and overthrow of this Government, a man who was justly convicted and such decision upheld by the United States Supreme Court.
Smith’s pardon was met with great satisfaction by labor organizers, who had long characterized his conviction as a political crime by a man with unpopular ideas.
Nothing indicates that Smith had second thoughts about his decision. Modern U.S. constitutional law embraces the view, stated by Justice Oliver W. Holmes, Jr., joined by Justice Louis Brandeis in his Gitlow dissent, that freedom of speech is part of the liberty that is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
 With thanks to Prof. John Q. Barrett for writing this month’s segment.
The Supreme Court of the United States at the time of the Gitlow trial. Left to right, front row: Hon. James Clark McReynolds, Hon. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Chief Justice William Howard Taft, Hon. Willis Van Devanter, Hon. Louis D. Brandeis. Back row: Hon. Edward Terry Sanford, Hon. George A. Sutherland, Hon. Pierce Butler, Hon. Harlan Fiske Stone. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, LC-H25-86410-BL.
The New York Times, December 13, 1925. Copyright the New York Times.
Portrait of Governor Alfred E. Smith, c. 1925. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, LC-H25-131027-BA.