ROBERT M. LA FOLLETTE, SR., “FREE SPEECH AND THE RIGHT OF CONGRESS TO DECLARE THE OBJECTS OF THE WAR” (6 OCTOBER 1917)
- Do you agree with Senator La Follette’s claim that preserving the right to free speech, especially in times of national crisis, is a vital endeavor? Why or why not?
- The responses to La Follette’s address were mixed. Critics argued that La Follette “belonged either in jail or in Germany” because his speech was perceived as unpatriotic. Supporters, like Eugene Debs, hailed the address as “one of the few really great speeches ever made in congress.” What is your response to the speech? Can you think of rhetorical strategies La Follette might have employed to make the speech more persuasive to more people? Is it possible to criticize the government without sounding “unpatriotic” to some people?
- In the interpretive essay, Heyse argued that President Donald Trump’s public discourse is reminiscent of Senator La Follette’s because both men speak with forceful and emotional rhetoric. President Trump has even been called a “demagogue” because of his speaking style. How would you define a demagogue? Do you think Fighting Bob deserves to be called a demagogue? Why or why not?
- At least three rhetorical critics have concluded that La Follette’s speech is an “apologia” or a speech of self-defense. Carl R. Burgchardt, for one, argued that La Follette “skillfully combined policy advocacy, counterattack, and apology in the same, seamless speech.” Can you find evidence of “policy advocacy, counterattack, and apology” throughout the speech? Which element/s do find to be the most persuasive, and why?
- Think about some recent free speech controversies (for example, the cancellation of appearances by conservative “provocateur” Milo Yiannopoulos and conservative commentator Ann Coulter at UC Berkeley, or Harvard University’s decision to revoke the admission of freshman who posted “offensive” messages on Facebook). Consider how La Follette might respond. How do you respond?
- La Follette was one of six senators to vote against U.S. entry into World War I. Who were the other five senators to cast dissenting votes? What were their arguments against entering World War I and how did they compare to La Follette’s arguments? What were the arguments in favor of entering World War I?
- During World War I, free speech and dissent were demonized and restricted. Research this phenomenon in relation to other wars (e.g., World War II, Vietnam War) and explain the similarities and differences between them.
- What was the Sedition Act of 1918? What impact did it have on free speech at the time and beyond?
- Write a report on the second oratorical renaissance. Where did it begin, why, and with whom? What are the rhetorical characteristics of this revival? Research some well-known second renaissance orators and illustrate how their discourse fits into that era. Compare and contrast with La Follette’s rhetoric.
- Read a landmark ruling on free speech by the Supreme Court and search for examples of Bobbitt’s six modalities (for example, read the majority opinion of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 1969). Can you find clear examples of historical, textual, doctrinal, ethical, structural, and/or prudential modalities in the speech? Which modalities emerge as most prominent? Discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of employing certain modalities when making free speech arguments.
- Read the “15 Non-negotiable Core Beliefs” of the Tea Party (https://www.teaparty.org/about-us/). Do you see strategic similarities between the Tea Party of today and the progressive insurgents of a century ago? What are some key similarities and differences?
- Host a viewing party of the documentary, “Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech,” in your home with friends, at a local community facility, or on your college campus. Discuss the major arguments of the film and their implications on contemporary free speech rights.
- Take your freedom of speech to the Internet and join the conversation. Find Internet sources, such as freedom of speech blogs, to see what some U.S. citizens are saying about issues of free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union hosts a free speech blog (http://www.aclu.org/blog/project/free-speech). Read about current freedom of speech issues on blogs like the ACLU’s and post your comments.
- Have you witnessed instances of restricted First Amendment rights on your campus or in your town? If so, write a letter to the editor of your school newspaper or your local paper articulating your position.
- Locate the email addresses of your senators and representatives in Congress and let them hear from you about your free speech concerns. How would you like them to vote on upcoming free speech measures? What free speech initiatives would you like them to advance? How can they continue to protect your First Amendment right to speak?