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Late Afternoon

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Slipping the constitutional leash

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In May 1918, with America embroiled in the First World War, Iowa’s Gov. William Lloyd Harding dealt a blow against Germany. His Babel Proclamation — that was its title; you cannot make this stuff up — decreed: “Conversation in public places, on trains and over the telephone should be in the English language.” The proscription included church services, funerals and pretty much everything else. Iowa’s immigrant communities that spoke Danish, Dutch, Norwegian and French objected to this censorship of languages of America’s wartime allies. Harding, however, said speaking any foreign language was an “opportunity (for) the enemy to scatter propaganda.” Conversations on street corners and over telephone party lines — Iowa telephone operators did the metadata-gathering that today’s National Security Agency does — resulted in arrests. Harding was ridiculed but Germany lost the war, so there.

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