Senator LaFollette: Free Speech During Wartime Controversy

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Senator LaFollette: Free Speech During Wartime Controversy

By: Lori Williamson | WW1 Daybook | September 27, 2017

This report, sent to Senator Frank B. Kellogg by the Minnesota Commission for public safety, discusses whether the Governor of Minnesota can remove elected officials from office for "seditious utterances" against the war, in reference to Civil War records. The Commission also included a Secret Service report from a citizen who witnessed "Germans" from a rural community near Pipestone, Minnesota discussing their disapproval for the war after hearing a speech given in St. Paul by Senator LaFollette of Wisconsin, the elected official under consideration. The witness reports, "they lauded LaFollette to the skies, and with him knocked the President, Congress, the Government, our part in the War, in fact, everything but the Germans." Senator LaFollette was a vocal opponent of the war, and advocate for free speech during wartime. The Commission petitioned the Senate to expel LaFollette for his inflammatory speech, but press reports indicating that he had "justified the sinking of the Lusitania," as discussed by the group observed by the witness, turned out to be false. The letter from the commission expresses concerns about the effects of LaFollette's (purported) speech "on the Pro-German mind." This report and the ensuing controversy in the Senate are prime examples of the censorship that certain government agencies advocated for during the war. (source:


Nelson report
Nelson report
Nelson report

Sept. 28 1917.
Hon. F.B. Kellogg,
United States Senate,
Washington, D.C.
My dear Senator:-
You have doubtless received by this time official copies of the Commission's resolution regarding Senator LaFollette. I enclose herewith for your information a Secret Service report which shows very plainly the affect of LaFollette's speech on the pro-German mind. This report from a little country community near Pipestone is just a squall that shows the way in which that wind blows. [...]

With sincere regard,
Yours truly,
[C.W. Ames]

"An observer writes from the Southwestern part of the State, September 23:
"I stayed to see if the Germans were going to have a meeting last night out at their country hall, found out that they were and attended it. The young people had a dance from eight to ten-thirty, to hide the real nature of the gathering. After this the old fellows, about thirty in number, decided that the coast was clear, so they got together and began to talk:
"Now that Lafollette had justified the sinking of the Lusitania, they might as well say that it was right in public. They knew now that moneyed men and that Englishman Wilson caused the War, and they must get together to stop it. That they would wait now for further action until Townley came to speak. He would speak at Slayton the 12th and at Marshall the 13th of October. They lauded LaFollette to the skies, and with him knocked the President, Congress, the Government, our part in the War, in fact, everything but the Germans."

The question for determination in the present case is whether or not the Governor of Minnesota, on the advice of the Commission of Public Safety, has power to remove from office any officer other than the so-called "constitutional officers" of the State, where they in public addresses and also in private conversation make statements denouncing the War in which the Government of the United States is now engaged as unjust and countenancing and in fact encouraging resistance to the draft act by picturing the men who are drafted as martyrs engaged in an unholy cause. The particular officials whose removal is now under consideration are the Mayor and City Attorney of New Ulm and the County Auditor of Brown County. The City Attorney, in a prepared speech, used language of extreme violence. It appears that a copy of this speech is in the hands of the Commission, and according to the Commission's report to the Governor, he, among other things, inquired of his audience to know why our young men should be sent abroad to fight against the German army "as murderers engaged to murder". He suggested to them that before such foreign service was required some way could be found to avoid it.

Citation: Knute Nelson Papers. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. 114.I.13.2F Box 26