New York Irish & the Fight for Free Speech

March 25, 2008
A Lecture by Christopher Finan
Sponsored by
the New York Irish History Roundtable
Saturday, May 3, 2008, at 2:00 p.m.
New York Genealogical &
Biographical Society
122 East 58th Street, Manhattan
Irish Americans have played prominent roles in the fight for free speech in the United States, and many of the most important and controversial battles for free speech in the United States were fought in New York City. For example, Irish nationalist Jeremiah O’Leary, a New York attorney and ardent supporter of Irish nationalism, was one of the Americans prosecuted for criticizing United States’ participation in World War I. O’Leary was publicly excoriated by President Woodrow Wilson for his pro-Irish and anti-War statements. O’Leary’s pro-Irish publication, the Bull, was suppressed by Postmaster General Burelson, and O’Leary himself was arrested and indicted for his characterizations of the military draft as part of an effort supporting the British colonial empire.
Similarly, Margaret Higgins Sanger, the daughter of an Irish immigrant stonecutter and a New Yorker, was prosecuted by special agent Anthony Comstock, acting on behalf of the U.S. Postal Service, for mailing copies of her avant-garde women’s rights magazine, The Woman Rebel. Another Irish New Yorker, Governor Alfred E. Smith, helped bring an end to the Red Scare that followed the war and vetoed legislation that would have restricted the rights of Socialists and other critics of the status quo. And State Senator James J. Walker, later Mayor of New York City, led the forces that defeated a book censorship bill. “No woman was ever ruined by a book,” Jimmy Walker said during the debate. (Of course, some of the most vigorous Irish American defenders of American free speech were Irish and were appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court – Frank Murphy, William Brennan and Anthony Kennedy – but they lacked the good fortune of a New York background.)
Too little attention has been paid to the Irish American contribution to the fight for free speech, an issue in which the New York Irish can take pride in the achievements of their forebears. This unique program will focus on these achievements.Christopher Finan is a longtime supporter of the Roundtable and president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. He is currently chair of the National Coalition against Censorship and a trustee of the Freedom to Read Foundation. He is the author of Alfred Smith: The Happy Warrior, and lives in Brooklyn.

Admission to this event is free. There is a suggested donation of $3.00 for refreshments.