Chafee, Zechariah, Jr.

Chafee’s expertise on free speech law guided and influenced justices on the Supreme Court and helped define free speech in U.S. jurisprudence.

Chafee graduated in 1907 from Brown University in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. He entered into his father’s prosperous iron business, but after three years he realized that his calling lay elsewhere. He began his lifelong connection with the Harvard Law School as a student, graduating in 1913. After three years of practicing law back in Providence, Chafee accepted an invitation to teach law at Harvard and returned there in 1916.

He first became interested in free speechSpeech, freedom of through a study of the law of libel. It was, however, the cases that arose out of World War I sedition and espionage legislation that set him on his most important work. His book Freedom of Speech (1920) caused wide discussion. Chafee argued for very wide tolerance of speech, even when the message being spoken was unpopular. He acknowledged that when the safety of the public was “really imperiled,” free speech could be abridged, but that mere suspicion of future harm from speech was not a sufficient reason to do so. Even during wartime, the society had an interest in maintaining the widest possible liberty consistent with preventing actual and concrete dangers. In general, Chafee thought, the marketplace of ideas in a free society would be a sufficient safeguard against dangerous, unjust, or intemperate speech. His views are credited with liberalizing the important dissenting and concurring opinions of Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis D. Brandeis during the 1920’s.

Although Chafee himself was a rather conservative patrician, his spirited defense of free speech seemed to ally him with American radicals. As a result, a group of Harvard Law School alumni attempted to have him fired in the spring of 1921. After a dramatic hearing at the Boston Harvard Club, during which Chafee made an eloquent defense of the freedom of speech, even of detestable and unpopular speech, all charges against him were dismissed. He was to teach at the Harvard Law School for thirty-six years.

Chafee was by the mid-1920’s a leading figure among American civil libertarians, and he enlisted in many battles to preserve basic constitutional freedoms, particularly those under the First Amendment. In the late 1920’s he investigated the use of “third-degree” techniques by the police. He became, in 1938, chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on the Bill of Rights. He helped reverse the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling against the Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the U.S. flag. He was active in preserving freedom of the press during World War II, and in the late 1940’s, he worked for the United Nations Subcommission on Freedom of Information and the Press. He was a prolific author of books and articles.

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