Voltairine de Cleyre, “Our Police Censorship” (1909)


Address delivered October 8, 1909, in Philadelphia, at a public meeting of protest against the police suppression of Emma Goldman’s lectures.



I have written my speech; I generally write my speech. We have a censor, and the censor may call me to account. He has some reporters here; and in their anxiety to earn their money, and their shortage of intelligence, they are likely to report me as uttering a lot of idiocy which the censorship wishes me to utter, in order to excuse its illegal, unconstitutional, and tyrannical action. To illustrate the mental caliber of the servants of the law, who are set to judge what you, the people, ought to be allowed to hear, I will relate a little incident of last week. A policeman, straying into a cigar store for a rest, remarked to the young lady at the counter, “Think of a woman like Emma Goldman wanting to speak!”

“Well,” said the lady, “why shouldn’t she speak if she wants to? How do you know that what she was going to say was bad when you didn’t let her even open her mouth?”

“Oh,” replied Sapience, “everybody knows what she’s going to say. Why, she carries a red flag with her; everybody knows red means danger.”

Now, this person has doubtless been trained to know that a red lantern over a break in the curbstone signifies danger; or a little red flag put up in the middle of the street means a place to be walked around; and he probably conceives that Emma Goldman has appropriated one of these little flags and runs around waving it, notifying all the people that she is dangerous. Upon sources of in- formation like these, the censorship depends for its knowledge of what Anarchists preach; therefore I have written my speech,—that policemen may not put incendiarism in my mouth.

If I stand here and say, for instance, that I believe in the abolition of great cities, because I think they are an infinite evil in human life, full of corruption and tyranny; that I think humanity would, if free, spread itself out, and distribute itself in small communities over the now waste lands of the globe, some policeman is likely to go to Timothy O’Leary, and say that I said the proper thing to do would be to tear up the pavements and bombard the city hall; that is about as correct an understanding of the word “abolition” as a policeman is capable of; and upon intelligences like these the rights of citizens depend. Not upon the Constitution; not upon the bill of rights; but upon the man with the club.

Now, against this man with the club, I am here to declare, and I shall keep on declaring until the club stops my mouth, for the unlimited freedom of speech. I happen to be a citizen of this country, through no fault of mine, but I want no freedom for myself that I do not want for every other human being, citizen of this country or citizen of the world.

More than this: You know the story of the Bell of Atri? The bell which any one with a grievance might ring and call the council together for a hearing? You know how the vine grew around the bell-rope till one day an old worn-out horse, turned by his thankless owner upon the highway to crop his living as he might, pulled at the vine-leaves till the great bell rang loud to all the people the Wrong of the Dumb? I have said often and often in our struggles to maintain a free platform for all, and I say again, that if any old sad belabored dray-horse could be gifted with the power of speech to tell his wrong (and if the wrongs that men have done to beasts in main- taining this accursed civilization had left their mark, there is not a paving-stone in the city that would not glow rust-red), that old sad slave should be welcomed by us, and be free to have his say. That is what I want—free- dom for any one to speak, freedom for any one to listen to what he pleases, to whom he pleases.

It doesn’t matter who Emma Goldman is, nor where she comes from, nor what she has to say. Lawyers and judges may quibble and define use and abuse, and liberty and license, and rigmarole and rolemarig. But I will stand for the whole thing—nothing less. The newspapers of this city have published the most bitter and virulent lies about Anarchists. Some of them have, on such occasions as seemed to make the utterance popular, declared editorially that the only proper place for an Anarchist is decorating a rope swung over a lamp-post. They said these things, and ministers of the gospel of Christ offered to head mobs to hang us, here in this city; and if that is not inciting to riot and endangering life, I wonder what is. And I stand for their freedom to say it; I stand for their freedom to lay bare all the inward brutality and barbarism of their souls; but I stand likewise for my right and every other man’s, woman’s, child’s, to say that those “who take the sword shall perish by the sword”; that not by force and law and servitude shall humanity advance towards the great goal which no man knows in its entirety, but which looms dimly upon us through the opening future; but through freedom, through the abolition of restriction, through self-asserting manhood, which does not fear to speak its mind, nor to listen when others speak, nor to let others listen to what they will.

Now, who is Emma Goldman, and what had she to say, that Director Clay and Timothy O’Leary should take away the right of the inhabitants of Philadelphia to hear her speak; should assume in advance that what she would say would upset the peace of the community?

She is a direct and fearless person, who for many years has been the target of police attacks. Away back in 1893 she addressed a meeting of unemployed people in New York, and told them precisely what Cardinal Manning said; viz., that “A starving man has a natural right to his neighbor’s bread.” The difference was that Cardinal Manning said it in a fifty-cent magazine which the people couldn’t buy, and Emma Goldman said it directly to starving men. Now, they didn’t take their neighbor’s bread; they didn’t riot; they went away quietly and went on starving. But the State of New York sent Emma Goldman to Blackwell’s Island for a year. From that time on, no matter where she has spoken, the police have sought to interfere with her; they have attached every disagreeable publicity to her name that they could; they have seized every occasion to charge her with responsibility for other people’s actions. They have put lies into a dead man’s mouth in order to victimize her. And for all that, notwithstanding all the times they have arrested her, notwithstanding the prejudices of the people due to public misrepresentation, and the facility of courts, they have never succeeded in convicting her of anything since 1893.

Why do they continue it? It is, indeed, beyond the comprehension of reasoning people. But then the police are not reasoning people. Reasoning people, such for instance as the Editor of the Public Ledger, say that such assumption of power on the part of a Director of Public Safety is intolerable tyranny; Mr. Ledger says that he wishes all Anarchists could be silenced, but not by force; by the good sense of the public who should abstain from listening to us. Now that is fair; the man thinks we are a nuisance, thinks that our doctrines are not worthy of attention, and says so. All right; he is entitled to his opinion, and the method he advises for silencing us is a very Anarchistic one. It involves no force, no denial of freedom. It’s precisely what I myself do with the Ledger about fifty weeks out of every fifty-two. I don’t read it,—or any other newspaper.

If what we have to say appears to be worthy of consideration to those who freely choose to listen to us, then let them consider and discuss it; if they think they can refute it, let them try to do so; if they think what we say is ridiculous, let them laugh at it; if they think we are beneath attention, let them pass us by on the other side; but let them not endeavor to close our mouths by the strong hand.

That is a method to which tyrants have ever resorted, and by which they, in the long run, reap the whirlwind. Men and women who have some pride of the free human being yet within you, I appeal to you to make the cause of the free word, and the free right of assemblage, your cause. Let Free Speech be heard on every street corner, till the very politicians will for shame adopt it. If the people, the people at large, speak, and demand free speech for the most hated—for free speech means that: it was never necessary to declare freedom to say what those in power believe—then we shall have a real Declaration of Independence—not on paper, but in will and act.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “Our Police Censorship,” Mother Earth 4, no. 9 (November 1909): 297-301.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.