Remarks by Scott Nearing at His Trial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This document is a speech concerning one man’s right to free speech and the written word, made to publicize his point of view safely and lawfully. Scott Nearing was charged with hindering military service, insubordination, mutiny, and refusing to do his duty within the military. He was charged with these crimes because he produced a pamphlet promoting his own radical pacifist ideals during wartime, specifically during American involvement in World War I. This speech is his defense to the charges laid against him by the government of the United States. These charges all fell under the Espionage Act of 1917. Sometime after his trial, the Supreme Court stated that this Act does not extend to or interfere with a person’s right to free speech; Nearing’s successful defense against such charges shows that, while his opinion may have been unpopular, he was still allowed to publish it according to his First Amendment Rights.

Summary Overview

This document is a speech concerning one man’s right to free speech and the written word, made to publicize his point of view safely and lawfully. Scott Nearing was charged with hindering military service, insubordination, mutiny, and refusing to do his duty within the military. He was charged with these crimes because he produced a pamphlet promoting his own radical pacifist ideals during wartime, specifically during American involvement in World War I. This speech is his defense to the charges laid against him by the government of the United States. These charges all fell under the Espionage Act of 1917. Sometime after his trial, the Supreme Court stated that this Act does not extend to or interfere with a person’s right to free speech; Nearing’s successful defense against such charges shows that, while his opinion may have been unpopular, he was still allowed to publish it according to his First Amendment Rights.

Defining Moment

The Espionage Act of 1917 was passed on June 15, 1917 in response to the United States’ entrance into World War I or The Great War, as it was called at the time. The act was created during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson and made any interference with soldiers or the war effort a crime. Even those suspected of such interference, such as passing along information to the enemies of the United States, could be prosecuted. In the case of Scott Nearing, he was prosecuted because he was an outspoken member of the pacifist community who printed and distributed pamphlets speaking out against the war and the government that had involved Americans in the struggle. Nearing was acquitted because he never overtly acted against the country; he simply made his own opinions public. But many times throughout history, the very act of speaking against the government has been seen as an act of sedition, and, therefore, a punishable offense. Fortunately in this case, Nearing was protected by the First Amendment and allowed to continue with his work.

This document shows how one man defended himself in the tense and troubling times of war against his own government, which feared that some of its own people might be working against its interests. There may have been good reason to pass the Espionage Act, as there were in fact German spies and their allies working within the United States in an effort to create disruptions that would lessen America’s impact on the war. And, as with many such fears, innocent people began to fall within the sights of the men in charge of securing national safety. Furthermore, pacifists, as well as socialists, were becoming more and more vocal, especially those, such as Scott Nearing, who spoke publicly dozens of times a year. Pacifism and the war effort were mutually exclusive. This resulted in many pacifists, especially those with large followings, being viewed as detrimental to the war effort and seditious in their actions. Possibly the most famous case during this time was that of Eugene Debs, an outspoken socialist, who was found guilty of sedition after giving speeches calling on people to resist the draft. Unlike Nearing, who simply promoted his own ideas, Debs attempted to organize others to work against the government and the war effort, resulting in his arrest and imprisonment.

Author Biography

Scott Nearing was born in 1883 in Pennsylvania and spent most of his life on the radical side of politics and economics, publishing his beliefs, and those of the many groups with which he was involved, in books and pamphlets. Nearing was a university professor, an extreme pacifist and a socialist, before moving to communism later in his life. He was a founding member of The People’s Council of America for Democracy and Peace and also an active member of the Socialist Party of America. His ability to speak publicly and his desire for peace led him to speak against the American government on many occasions and continue his activism throughout both World Wars and the Cold War. Such staunch pacifism and his non-capitalist economic beliefs kept him at odds with the United States government, especially since he was not afraid to voice his opinions, having been known to write many letters to sitting presidents with his thoughts and opinions on world events. He continued such work until his death in 1983, just days after his one-hundredth birthday.

Document Analysis

The bulk of this document is a man defending his right to free speech, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. So the question becomes: If this is a right that is guaranteed, why was Scott Nearing put on trial? The answer to this question lies in the inherent tension between the individual and the government during a war. Nearing’s defense lays out the charges, the evidence that the government has against him, and then explains his view about his rights and why the ability to speak his mind is central to democracy and should not be taken away because of fear during war.

Nearing openly admits that he published a pacifist pamphlet that called for Americans to abstain from the war effort. But that was the extent of his crime. Unlike other activists, Nearing contained his actions to the printing of reading material. The most interesting thing about the beginning of his defense is that he actually uses the prosecutor’s, Mr. Barnes, own words against him. This was not simply to emphasize his case, but to show that government itself knew it had no real evidence. “[I]t was not necessary for the Government to show actual mutiny and disloyalty, but the publication of this book in itself is sufficient.” This statement places the case directly in the realm of a fight over the First Amendment and what actions it protects in a wartime setting. As Nearing argues, “the whole crime consists in my expression of opinions.” As Nearing and the judge and jury see it, this prosecution rests entirely on the idea that because someone expresses an opinion that stands in opposition to the government and its actions, that person is subject to punishment. If Nearing had, like Eugene Debs, accompanied his words with actions that directly hindered some aspect of the war, he would have been liable to lawful retribution. But this was not the case.

Nearing moves from speaking directly about his right to express his opinion to the broader topic of what it means to be an American and live in a democratic society. He speaks passionately and persuasively about many of the ideas that the founding fathers wished to protect when they created the Constitution. In order to continually better society, discussion must be not only allowed, but encouraged; otherwise it will stagnate and eventually waste away. Nearing also openly admits to being a socialist, which was not a crime, although it was considered in a negative light. But Nearing owns his party affiliation and explains that he believes in people, in their equality and that such beliefs stand in direct opposition to war. To him, war is not a part of society, but the end of it. Furthermore, even though it is an unpopular opinion to hold during a war, it is still his right as an American to express this opinion. The beauty and most difficult part of the First Amendment is that no one has to agree with another person’s opinion, but an individual is still allowed to speak, no matter how disagreeable his opinion. Nearing believed in this and his speech concludes elegantly by asking the members of the jury, and everyone in court, to uphold the rights guaranteed to Americans and to protect liberty in America.

Essential Themes

The most obvious short-term impact of this defense was Scott Nearing’s acquittal and consequent return to regular life. But the effects were also more widely felt, as the Espionage Act would be used in many subsequent cases in order to secure the country from threats during wartime. Eventually, elements of the Espionage Act came to make up part of a federal code, which is still enforced today. This case, and cases like it, sparked debates concerning the extent of First Amendment rights and how people were allowed to express themselves when they were opposing the government and governmental actions. What is it to be a citizen? What are the responsibilities of a citizen? How far is the government allowed to go when prosecuting a citizen for expressing his or her opinions? Where is the line between expressing opinions and actively working against the government? These questions may seem familiar, as they are still debated today.

In the long-term, this case is just one of decades’ worth of cases that involve the Espionage Act, although it has now been altered and amended several times. These cases continue to come before courts, and understanding of the First Amendment continues to be redefined. Especially during war, when threats to the country and its citizens emerge, freedom becomes susceptible to harm, sometimes by the very government that is supposed to protect it. Speeches like Scott Nearing’s serve as a reminder to readers that even though Nearing’s own fight took place nearly one hundred years ago, he was dealing with many of the same issues we now confront, such as finding the balance between protecting people and oppressing them. Democracy is a fragile system, with both the people and the government having to work to check each other so that neither gains nor loses too much control. Figures such as Nearing provide examples of how that can be done, and Nearing’s own speech reminds us that there are those who are willing to fight against their own government for the benefit of their country.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Carroll, Thomas F. “Freedom of Speech and of the Press in War Time: The Espionage Act.” The Michigan Law Review 17 (1919): 621–665. Web. 12 June 2014.
  • Chatfield, Charles. “World War I and the Liberal Pacifist in the United States.” The American Historical Review 75 (1970): 1920–1937. Web. 11 June 2014.
  • Nearing, Scott. The Making of a Radical: A Political Autobiography. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000. Digital File.
  • Sherman, Steve, ed. A Scott Nearing Reader: The Good Life in Bad Times. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1989. Print.
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