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 speech
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.
Bill of Rights
First Amendment speech tests
Holmes, Oliver Wendell
Speech and press, freedom of
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette
Whitney v. California