In 1920, a bond salesman walked into Joseph Yenowsky's Waterbury, Conn., clothing store. Yenowsky was a tough sell. During their lengthy conversation, Yenowsky told the salesman he thought Vladimir Lenin, the Russian Bolshevik leader, was "the brainiest man" in the world. The bond salesmen turned Yenowsky in to the police for sedition. Yenowsky got six months in jail under a Connecticut statute.
This was hardly an isolated incident during the so-called "Red Scare" of the World War I era. In Syracuse, three activists were arrested for circulating fliers protesting the conditions of America's political prisoners. The subversive flier quoted the First Amendment. They got 18 months in prison. In Washington, D.C., a man refused to stand for the The Star-Spangled Banner. A furious sailor shot the "disloyal" man three times in the back. When the man fell, the Washington Post reported, "the crowd burst into cheering and handclapping." An Indiana jury deliberated for two minutes before it acquitted a man of murdering an immigrant who'd said "To hell with the United States."
A number of conditions were necessary for this totalitarian fever that gripped America. The law -- state, federal and local -- was arrayed against any free speech deemed "un-American." But so were the people. There was a broad consensus that there was a real threat posed to the U.S. from abroad -- and from within -- in the form of Bolsheviks, anarchists and disloyal immigrants or "hyphenated Americans" (e.g. German-Americans or Irish-Americans). Woodrow Wilson's administration fueled this climate. Wilson himself proclaimed that "Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready."
It's valuable to remember all of this for several reasons. First, it's good to know such things can happen here ("even" under the leadership of liberals and progressives). Also, it's good to understand that things have been worse than they are today. There's a tendency to think our government has only become more intrusive and censorial than ever. That's simply untrue. Last, we should be wary of thought-crime panics.