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"Free Speech in Wartime"

October 6, 1917

With only 26 hours remaining in the life of the 64th Congress on March 3, 1917, Progressive Republican senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin launched a filibuster. At issue was whether the Senate would pass House-approved legislation to arm merchant ships against a renewed campaign of German submarine attacks. Seeing passage of this measure as taking the nation closer to intervening in World War I, La Follette sought a national referendum to demonstrate his belief that most Americans opposed that course.

A dozen senators who agreed with La Follette’s tactic spoke around the clock until 9:30 on the morning of March 4. When La Follette rose to deliver the concluding remarks, the presiding officer recognized only those who opposed the filibuster. The Wisconsin insurgent erupted with white-hot rage and screamed for recognition. While Democrats swarmed around the furious senator to prevent him from hurling a brass spittoon at the presiding officer, Oregon senator Harry Lane spotted a pistol under the coat of Kentucky senator Ollie James. Lane quickly decided that if James reached for the weapon, he would remove from his pocket a heavy steel file and plunge its sharp point into James' neck. While La Follette dared anyone to carry him off the floor, the Senate ordered him to take his seat. He then blocked a series of unanimous consent agreements to take up the bill, which died at noon with the 64th Congress.

Weeks later, only six senators, including La Follette, voted against the declaration of war. As he continued to speak out against U.S. involvement, a Senate colleague called him "a pusillanimous, degenerate coward."

Following a September 20 speech, delivered extemporaneously in Minnesota, a hostile press misquoted La Follette as supporting Germany's sinking of the Lusitania. His state legislature condemned him for treason. In the Senate, members introduced resolutions of expulsion.

On October 6, 1917, in response to these charges, La Follette delivered the most famous address of his Senate career—a classic defense of the right to free speech in times of war. Although this three-hour address won him many admirers, it also launched a Senate investigation into possible treasonable conduct.

Early in 1919, as the end of hostilities calmed the heightened wartime emotions, the Senate dismissed the pending expulsion resolutions and paid La Follette's legal expenses. Forty years later, when the Senate named five of its most outstanding former members, the honored group included Robert M. La Follette.