It’s hard out here for a free-speech zealot.
Government book bans are on the rise. A Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust was deemed too risqué for teenagers in Tennessee. A Mississippi mayor tried to extort his own city’s library into removing LGBTQ materials. A flurry of vague new bills in some states seeks to prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” at public colleges and universities.
For defenders of the First Amendment of any political stripe, these developments ought to set off klaxons. But where is the universal condemnation? It is as if America has forgotten the patriotic thrill that comes from defending the speech rights of someone across the aisle, particularly someone whose speech you don’t like.
All this has me thinking about a complicated hero of free speech I’ve spent several years writing about named John Revelstoke Rathom — a forgotten figure whose rise and fall is a cautionary tale we should consider a century later.
An Australian immigrant, Rathom bounced around the United States as a news reporter in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but made his deepest mark as the editor of The Providence Journal from 1912 until his death in 1923. In the two years before the United States joined World War I, he repeatedly shocked and dazzled the nation by publishing sensational scoops about German espionage and propaganda within the United States. These stories were republished in newspapers and magazines in every state in the nation. In his era, Rathom was among the most famous journalists in the country. He was also a liar, a grifter, an extortionist, and an imposter with a fake identity and a made-up biography of spectacular accomplishments that, in fact, never happened. Rathom was a confidant of President Woodrow Wilson and trusted by millions of news readers — and there is no evidence he ever spoke his real name on this continent.
But fanatics of the First Amendment cannot be choosy about our heroes. Champions of free speech are not always wholesome characters. Take, for instance, Larry Flynt, the late pornographer whose 1988 US Supreme Court victory in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell is a legal pillar protecting the right to satirize politicians and public figures. Comedy shows from Saturday Night Live to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver owe their razor-edged parodies to “the smut peddler who cares,” as Flynt once described himself.
Rathom was not exactly a hero of the free press — he was a martyr for it.
Almost immediately after fighting broke out in Europe in 1914, agents for the competing powers launched a propaganda war in the United States to influence US public opinion to their side. Rathom tapped into these spy networks and relentlessly mined them for his explosive stories. He also developed back-channel relationships with officials in the Wilson administration, especially within the Department of Justice. He traded news, secrets, and gossip with these sources; some of what he heard wound up as blindly-sourced material in his newspaper stories.
The arrangement went great, until suddenly it did not. Shortly after Rathom got his wish that the United States enter the war on the side of Great Britain and the Allies, the federal government turned on him.
By mid-1917, Rathom had grown too big to control. He embarked on a lecture tour through major cities, spreading the idea that America was teeming with German saboteurs and spies. None of what he said reflected well on the agency whose job it was to round up spies, the Department of Justice. The DOJ decided to shut Rathom’s big mouth.
Rathom had handed the government the perfect weapon to use against him. During his speaking tour, he had falsely claimed personal credit for espionage work that resulted in his newspaper scoops, when, in fact, that work had been performed by spy networks and shared with him.
In January 1918, the attorney general of the United States, Thomas Watt Gregory, dictated secret orders, intending to shut Rathom up. “It occurs to me that this man Rathom should be jerked before the Grand Jury in Boston and thoroughly examined,” Gregory wrote, “and if he admits that what he has been telling are lies or that he has not the evidence, have the grand jury make a report to the court which in that way can be published.”
Rathom was desperate not to testify. Gregory agreed to let him out of the subpoena only if Rathom signed a document confessing to telling lies on his lecture tour. Gregory promised to keep the document secret, if Rathom kept his mouth shut. In other words, the nation’s highest law enforcement officer blackmailed a journalist into signing away his freedom to speak. When Rathom ultimately pushed back, the DOJ released the document and ruined him.
What did America lose with the suppression of this one journalist’s free speech? Just a piece of its national character. Every time the government suppresses speech, I fear it gets a little easier the next time.
Watching Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal efforts to crush dissent and browbeat his whole nation into parroting risible lies about his Ukraine invasion — lies right out of an Orwell novel — makes me want to clutch even tighter to what we have here. And when I wonder how far my government might go to restrict speech today, I think of Rathom’s story and how far the government once went to silence a single journalist.
Mark Arsenault is a staff writer for The Boston Globe and the author of a new Rathom biography, “The Imposter’s War: The Press, Propaganda and the Newsman who Battled for the Minds of America,” Pegasus Books, coming April 5. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.