Front Page Titles (by Subject) The First Amendment vs. the CPI - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4
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The First Amendment vs. the CPI - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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The First Amendment vs. the CPI
“First Amendment Liberties and the Committee on Public Information.” The American Journal of Legal History 23(April 1979):95–119.
A threat to the First Amendment's freedom of expression resulted from the creation of a so-called “government publicity department,” known as the Committee on Public Information, by Woodrow Wilson's administration during World War I.
The man most responsible for establishing the Committee on Public Information (the CPI) was Arthur Bullard, a muckraking journalist and novelist who described himself as a socialist of the “aggressively revolutionary” variety. Bullard became involved in the issue of wartime censorship during 1916 as a result of the procensorship views expressed by the censor of the War Department, the then major, Douglas MacArthur. Bullard's reaction to MacArthur's position on censorship took the form of a memorandum that he submitted to Wilson's advisor, Colonel Edward M.House. In it Bullard argued that “the best way to stop enemy propaganda was to meet it with unvarnished facts.”
As America's entry into the war grew closer, Bullard became interested in the role of the press and of the government in reporting news during wartime. He outlined his thoughts on this matter in a book he published in the spring of 1917, Mobilising America. In his book Bullard claimed, as before, that sound public opinion required free discussion and that censoring debate was self-defeating. But at the same time he also stated that dangerous opinion could be best combatted “by constantly giving the man in the street something wholesome to think about.” A government publicity department, he maintained, should be established that could requisition space on every news paper front page in order to “feed ‘army stories’ to the public.” The publicity department should also set up a corps of press agents to make the war “understandable” and, thereby, popular.
Colonel House read Bullard's Mobilising America and stated on the day that the CPI was created that he agreed with Bullard's views almost entirely. Through his influence on Wilson and House, Bullard played a significant role in the initial organization of the CPI. Eventually he went to Russia and served in the CPI offices there.
The man appointed chairman of the CPI, George Creel, had an even more decisive influence in shaping government news “management” and censorship policies during World War I than Bullard. Creel was an ardent supporter of Wilson and of “progressive” causes and, like Bullard, was a muckraker. Further resembling Bullard, Creel often stated his opposition to censorship, although he did support censorship of overseas cables. Censorship was objectionable to Creel because it demonstrated a “distrust of democratic common sense.”
Even though the CPI technically had no power of censorship, it did censor in a serious way. Creel also soon attempted to use his power to encourage “voluntary” censorship by promulgating regulations for editors to help them prevent the publication of “dangerous” news. He also sought to obtain (for a board on which he served) the jurisdiction and funds to censor the mails and to repress material he felt presented dangerous ideas or portrayed the United States in an unfavorable light.
Vaughn contends that Creel's ambivalent attitude toward censorship was based on a belief that First Amendment protections are not absolute. Creel, “asked if legislation limiting free speech was compatible with ‘free public opinion,’... responded that Congress was the voice of the people. “The right of habeaus corpus is a safeguard of free speech, and we have no right to kick against a law after Congress passes it.” Vaughn believes that this may, in fact, have been the view of most Americans at that time. Prominent men such as Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, both of whom wrote tracts for the CPI, held similar views, and an intellectual pedigree was provided for this conception of the First Amendment by Constitutional scholar Edward S. Corwin. But whatever the dominant public opinion was at the time, the energies of the CPI were, in part, directed toward publicizing the position that free expression was not an absolute right and that the scope of the First Amendment rested with legislatures.