New book on Henry Ford libel trial sheds light on history of hate speech

A major new book by American Bar Foundation scholar Victoria Saker Woeste, "Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech" (Stanford University Press, 2012), provides a startling new interpretation of a watershed episode in the life of Henry Ford: his largely forgotten side career as a publisher of anti-Semitic propaganda and the two Jewish lawyers, Aaron Sapiro and Louis Marshall, who each tried to stop his war against the Jews.

Using never-before discovered evidence from the Ford archives as well as private collections from lawyers and civil rights leaders involved in trying to stop Ford's libelous newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, this book reveals the depth of Ford's involvement in the operation of his newspaper, how he invited the libel lawsuit, Sapiro v. Ford, that was filed against him in 1925, and how he maneuvered to end the litigation out of court.

With new insights gained from these previously unknown documents, Woeste advances the historical understanding of Ford's involvement in the creation of the libelous articles. Woeste remarked that the book "reveals the extent to which employees of Ford's newspaper were involved in the creation of the libelous articles, the campaign to create evidence to support their veracity after their publication, and the litigation process after the plaintiff, Aaron Sapiro, filed his lawsuit in 1925." This deep involvement is a reality Ford denied both during the Sapiro trial and in his apology.

The new first-hand sources also reveal deep divisions among Jewish civil rights lawyers and religious leaders over how to handle the Ford matter and why they disagreed on the usefulness of resorting to law to answer hateful publications. Throughout the twentieth century, American courts have generally declined to recognize the category of hate speech as an exception to free speech rights under the First Amendment.

Yet in order to end the embarrassing litigation, Henry Ford apologized to American Jews for the one thing he would never have lost on in court: the offense of hate speech against all Jews as a group. The case and its ambiguous resolution reveal the tensions in law and culture between individual freedoms and the status of those seeking equality on the basis of group identity.

"Henry Ford's War" treats Ford's famous apology to the Jews in 1927 as less an unvarnished victory over anti-Semitism, as historians have uncritically viewed it, than a product of compromise and mediation among Jewish civil rights activists and lawyers who had different goals for the lawsuit and conflicting approaches for achieving those goals. Lost in the shuffle were the legal interests of the fiercely determined plaintiff, Aaron Sapiro, whose vindication was incomplete at best, and the long-term objective of containing the spread of Henry Ford's anti-Semitic publications.

In "Henry Ford's War," Woeste argues that the Ford libel/hate speech episode is a dramatic example of the extension of corporate and economic power into the social realm and the inability of law to constrain such behavior.

"There is a historical relationship between corporate power and responsibility, on the one hand, and the lack of accountability for social and political actions of corporations and their owners," she observes.

"This will be the definitive work on Henry Ford and his confrontation by American Jews," said Richard S. Levy of the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Woeste not only presents and explains what was at stake on the basis of significant new evidence, she brings to her analysis the legal expertise to exploit a whole body of secondary literature that most historians are simply unable to evaluate."

The ground-breaking research presented in "Henry Ford's War" is extremely relevant to legal policy makers today. According to Woeste, the project "advances the debate on whether and how to limit speech under the First Amendment while preserving individual freedom of self-expression." She adds, "By exposing the active participation of one of America's historic idols in the origins of a hateful publication with lasting pernicious effects and historical significance, this project connects current quandaries to longstanding issues over the nature of the American community and the continuing problem of bridging difference while keeping the government out of the business of censorship."

"It is not often that I read a book that is as important, well-researched, and well-written," said Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis University. "Anyone interested in Henry Ford, in anti-Semitism, or in legal battles against hate speech will want to read this book."

Victoria Saker Woeste is a legal historian and is trained as an interdisciplinary academic in law and social science. Since joining the American Bar Foundation in 1994, she has established herself as a leading scholar in the field of U.S. legal history, specifically twentieth century business regulation and political economy. Her first book, "The Farmer's Benevolent Trust: Law and Agricultural Cooperation in Industrial America," (University of North Carolina Press, 1998) won the Law and Society Association's J. Willard Hurst Prize in 2000; in dissertation form it was awarded the 1993 Herman Krooss Prize of the Business History Conference.

Published: Wed, Jun 20, 2012

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