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A fight for free speech

One hundred years ago, workers and activists protested a new city law limiting labor agitation, sparking the nation’s first significant free speech battle

One of the most dramatic periods in Spokane’s history – the Free Speech Fight of 1909 – began 100 years ago Monday on a downtown street corner. It would take an entire book to do justice to this wild period of Spokane’s history. Yet we can sum it up a few sentences:

• The Spokane City Council enacted a law in early 1909 banning speeches on downtown streets, as a way to limit labor agitation.

• The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – nicknamed the “Wobblies” – issued a call for hundreds of workers and activists to converge on Spokane to “fill the jails” in a mass civil protest.

• Beginning on Nov. 2, 1909, activists took turns standing on soapboxes and getting arrested as soon as they opened their mouths.

• Within weeks, 500 people had been arrested, including the 19-year-old socialist firebrand Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

• The city was forced to house the prisoners at an abandoned school and at the barracks at Fort George Wright. The costs for the city – and the bad publicity – began to add up.

• In March 1910, the fight ended with both sides declaring victory. The city repealed the law and the Wobblies moved on to similar fights in other cities.

It was the “first significant free speech fight in the country,” said Dale Raugust, a Spokane historian who has written about the event. It was also one of the first examples of mass, nonviolent civil disobedience.

It all began with boiling resentment over what the Wobblies called Spokane’s employment “sharks.”

Dozens of employment agencies in downtown Spokane were charging loggers and miners $1 for a job and then splitting the fee with employers who would fire the worker after only a day or two. Then the worker would have to go back to the agency and pay another dollar for a job.

One logging company hired 3,000 men one winter in order to maintain a crew of 50, according to author Robert Tyler in “Rebels In the Woods: The IWW in the Pacific Northwest.”

The IWW already had a reputation as one of the most radical – and effective – unions in the country and was particularly strong in Spokane. It began holding mass public demonstrations on the streets near the agencies.

Alarmed, the Spokane City Council passed an ordinance effective Jan. 1, 1909, banning public speeches on the streets within the “fire limits” – the area burned in the Great Fire of 1889, i.e., most of downtown.

The Wobblies were outraged at what they saw as abridgement of their constitutional rights. So they declared Nov. 2, 1909, to be Free Speech Day and issued a nationwide call for people to come “and fill the jails of Spokane.” The idea was to protest the law by violating it en masse and straining the city’s resources.

Spokane authorities responded with bravado. Police Chief John T. Sullivan claimed he had jail accommodations for 500 and prepared a special “rockpile” at Monroe and Broadway for his new inmates.

When Nov. 2 arrived, both sides played their roles. Dozens of men and women stepped up to soapboxes at Stevens Street and Front Avenue (now Spokane Falls Boulevard) and were immediately arrested.

One city detective saw a man about to get up on a soapbox and said, “Come this way, please.”

“I’m an American citizen and I want my rights,” replied the man.

“That’s what they all say,” said the detective, who proceeded to smash the box so “that it might not serve for any more unkempt Ciceros,” according to The Spokesman-Review.

Police also raided the IWW hall and arrested the editor of the IWW’s West Coast weekly newspaper, which was published in Spokane, and several “girl agitators.” Suffragettes and the city’s “club women” had enthusiastically joined the cause.

The day’s batch numbered about 103 people, all of whom spent the night in the city’s jail. Already word was leaking out of overcrowding and rough conditions.

“If people insist on crowding the jail, then they can’t complain because the jail is crowded,” said the unsympathetic police chief.

The Wobblies defiantly announced that the Free Speech Fight was just getting started. By the next day, the arrest total reached 150. On Nov. 4, the city’s fire hoses were turned loose on an orator at Front and Stevens.

“His words, ‘Feller workers,’ were cut short with a cold, blinding stream of water,” reported The Spokesman-Review. “… The crowd scattered in every direction.”

Spokane was making national news. The reaction of local citizens can be gauged in part by the editorials in the local newspapers. The city’s two dominant newspapers, The Spokesman-Review and the Chronicle, were uniformly unsympathetic toward the Wobblies and their cause.

The Chronicle editor called them “professional tramps and hoboes.” The Spokesman-Review editor called them “anarchists,” “chronic agitators,” “loafers” and “shiftless, irresponsible, indolent men.”

As for free speech, they found no merit in the Wobblies’ cause.

The Spokesman-Review called the anti-street-speaking ordinance “reasonable and necessary.” It said that the Wobblies could hold all of the meetings they want outside the “fire limits” or on vacant lots or in halls, but they did not have the right to “obstruct business streets and sidewalks” and “force their doctrines” upon the unwilling ears of the citizens of Spokane.

The Spokane Press, which called itself the “people’s paper,” had a different perspective. It advocated immediately modifying the street-speaking law to allow citizens to “go ahead and spiel.”

“Citizens of Spokane, the members of the IWW are American citizens,” wrote the editor of the Press. “Remember that. Free speech is an inherent right.”

But the city’s establishment was in no mood to compromise. The papers got plenty of mileage out of the fact that 40 percent of those arrested were not American citizens – many were German, Swedish, Italian and Irish.

As arrests mounted into the hundreds, conditions in jail emerged as the most incendiary issue. The Spokane Press ran a headline screaming, “Human Bedlam in the City Bastille.”

The abandoned Franklin School was pressed into service to house hundreds of inmates. When the school grew too crowded, the federal government allowed the city to move hundreds of prisoners into barracks at Fort George Wright. About 500 people were incarcerated.

Many Wobbly rank-and-file inmates refused to do hard labor on the police chief’s rock pile, so they were put on a bread-and-water diet. Their leaders, who were better fed, resolved to go on a hunger strike in sympathy.

“It took a lot of will power, but when they brought our food, we threw it out through the bars on the floor of the hallway,” wrote Wobbly organizer John Panzner in a memoir. “There were steaks, potatoes, bread, coffee and tin plates and cups all over the floor.”

“The petty acts of the men in jail, such as throwing their food upon the floor, breaking the dishes, screaming out silly songs and pouring torrents of abuse upon the law and police department, are what sane and orderly minds look for from incorrigible children and men in insane asylums,” said The Spokesman-Review.

The hunger strike was called off after about eight days, after generating plenty of publicity.

And those “silly songs”? They were selections from an IWW songbook printed in Spokane, which would become legendary in the annals of folk music as the “Little Red Songbook.”

By Nov. 12, one of the stars of the Wobbly movement – the young activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – had arrived in Spokane.

She took over as editor of the Wobbly paper, and did not pull any punches. She called one of Spokane’s judges a “lackey of the parasites” and referred to Spokane police as “hired thugs,” “Cossacks,” “fat-jowled Hibernians” and “hired clubbers.”

Flynn was arrested for conspiracy at the end of November, along with four other “ringleaders,” and spent a night in jail. She was released on bond and immediately wrote a sensational article accusing the jailers of using the women’s prison as a kind of municipal brothel.

City authorities retaliated by raiding the Wobbly paper and confiscating 7,000 copies of the December issue. At a trial a few days later, Flynn was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to three months in prison, but was promptly acquitted on appeal.

The tone of the fight was getting nastier. At Thanksgiving, the press reported that the Franklin School inmates would be given a holiday meal of “bread and water, with a dessert of fresh air.”

Wobblies instigated several lawsuits against the city over their treatment in prison. A number of people got sick in jail, and at least three died shortly after their release, said Raugust.

As December dragged on, the city was beginning to get nervous about this unpleasant national publicity. The Spokesman-Review and Chronicle indignantly refuted various “Eastern” newspaper stories accusing the city of depriving citizens of their constitutional rights.

Also, the bills were beginning to add up. The prisoners were costing taxpayers at least $1,000 a week, according to one report.

“The trouble has been somewhat expensive to the taxpayers, but the money has been spent in a good cause,” said the Chronicle. “The men who have come here to bully the city … have been taught a lesson they will not soon forget.”

After 1910 arrived, both sides were ready to settle. City and IWW officials held a conference in March in which they agreed to end the fight. The prisoners in jail would be released and the IWW hall and newspaper would be maintained.

The IWW agreed to drop its lawsuits. The street-speaking ordinance, however, was left intact.

This was touted in the newspapers as a victory for the city.

“The police conceded nothing, but got everything,” said the Press.

However, within a week the city council passed a new ordinance which allowed public street-speaking with only a few restrictions.

“I think it was a victory for the IWW, because, basically, they got what they wanted, the right to speak on the street,” said Raugust.

The Wobblies certainly touted it as an unqualified victory. And the problem that started it all – the corruption among the employment agency “sharks” – was resolved as well. The city council revoked the licenses of 19 of the 31 employment agencies.

Finally, a pair of postscripts:

• Flynn went on to become national chairperson of the Communist Party of the United States. When she died in 1964, 25,000 people attended her funeral in Moscow’s Red Square.

• Police Chief Sullivan was assassinated in 1911 while sitting near a window at his home. The crime was never solved.

 

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