Legal History

You can't censor Trotsky speech, DOJ lawyer advised FDR administration in 1937 legal opinion


A Justice Department lawyer advised the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that it had no legal authority to block transmission of a speech by Leon Trotsky.

The 1937 legal opinion by Assistant Attorney General Golden Bell was included in a volume of newly released legal opinions by the Office of Legal Counsel, theAtlantic reports. Trotsky was making the speech in Mexico, and it would be transmitted to New York City by telephone.

Bell said the Federal Communications Commission had no authority to censor telephone communications. He does, however, note a federal law that makes it a crime to assist, incite or engage in rebellion or insurrection against the United States.

“If this section is applicable,” Bell wrote, “those who assist in the transmission and delivery of the speech in New York City would probably be guilty of violating it. I am of the opinion, however, that it is not applicable to the present situation, as it is not probable that the speech will incite to rebellion or insurrection.”

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