United States: When "Slacker" Was A Dirty Word: Defamation And Draft Dodging During World War I

Last Updated: July 21 2014
Article by David A. Kluft

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914 and, by the end of August 1914, Germany, Russia, France and the United Kingdom had joined the war. The United States entered the fray on April 6, 1917, by declaring war on Germany. This was when the word "slacker" suddenly became defamatory.

1917 Navy Recruiting Poster

The Slacker Lists

Liberty Bond Poster

1917 Liberty Bond Poster

The U.S. armed services actively solicited volunteers with an astonishingly inventive array of recruitment posters, but it wasn't enough. On May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act authorized the raising of a non-volunteer army. Men between the ages of 21 and 31 years old were required to register, and the first draft lottery was conducted on July 20, 1917.

Those who avoided participation in the draft came to be known as "slackers." Derived from the Latin "laxus," the word was used primarily for nautical purposes prior to the war; a description for a slow moving current (e.g., a "slacker tide" or "slacker water"). Once the war effort began, however, "slacker" became shorthand for a range of activities perceived to be unpatriotic. According to one pamphlet issued by a Texas Council of Defense:

Trenton Evening Times

Trenton Evening Times

"By the term 'slacker' we mean to convey the idea that one whose liberties and property are protected by a government supported by the sacrifices which are being made by the brave American soldier, and refuses to aid the government to the extent of his ability, is a traitor to his country and a disgrace to his community."

"Slacker Lists" were printed in newspapers. Those who refused to purchase war bonds were publicly outed as "bond slackers." The use of the term "slacker" by a prosecutor to describe a criminal defendant was considered so prejudicial as to constitute grounds for reversal of a conviction. Indeed, for a brief time period, there were few words more incendiary. Or more defamatory.

Slacker Per Se

Slacker 4

1918 US Gov. Poster

Many libel cases arose from the use of the term "slacker" during the war, but perhaps the most well-known was Choctaw Coal & Mining Co. v. Lillich. On July 18, 1918, while the war was raging, the words "List of slackers: John Lillich" were painted near the entrance to the Choctaw Coal mine in Walker County, Alabama. Mr. Lillich brought a defamation suit against the mining company. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, and the company appealed.

The company asserted that the word "slacker" was not so awful that it was defamatory per se (actionable without proof of specific harm), and the jury should have been so charged. The Alabama Supreme Court resoundingly disagreed, holding:

"The word is not found in prewar lexicons, but had its genesis as to use and meaning in the conditions following our entrance into the World War . . . During the war it was unquestionably a term of the severest reproach, well understood by all men, and calculated to subject its bearer to hatred and contempt in practically every community in the land. To falsely publish such an accusation of any person was manifestly libelous per se . . . Whether or not this would be so in time of peace we need not determine."

The Court ended up reversing the case on other grounds, namely that the real culprit had been a rogue employee not under the control of the company. However, the holding amply reflects the universally understood poisonous import of "slacker" during that period.

The Hawaiian "Slacker" Tide

Salt Lake City Tribune, 1913

Salt Lake City Tribune, 1913

The armistice with Germany was signed on November 11, 1918, effectively ending the war for the U.S. Without an active draft, the explosive nature of the word "slacker" quickly diminished. The case of Kahanamoku v. Advertiser Publishing demonstrated just how fast this changed occurred.

Duke Kahanamoku was a world famous surfer, swimmer and Olympic gold medalist. On or about October 29, 1919, Kahanamoku pulled out of a swimming exhibition due to muscle pain. A local newspaper viciously attacked him for this, accusing him of letting down the public and disgracing the "Hawaiian race." Even worse, the article called Kahanamoku a "slacker." Kahanamoku sued the newspaper for defamation. At trial, the judge refused to instruct the jury that the "primary" or "ordinary" meaning of the word "slacker" was the evasion of military duty. Kahanamoku appealed.

On appeal, the Hawaii Supreme Court first noted the war had been over for nearly a year by the time the article was published. During the war, the word "slacker . . . generally applied to a person who unlawfully evaded or attempted to evade his military duty." However, since the war ended, it "ha[d] come to have another equally well-known meaning, referring to one who evades or attempts to evade some other duty." The Court held that, since the word was now "capable of the two meanings, it would have been error for the trial judge" to instruct the jury that it necessarily imputed a lack of patriotism or a failure to perform a military duty.

"B***h, Idiot and Slacker"

Slacker, 1991 Film by Richard Linklater

Slacker, 1991 Film by Richard Linklater

Although the term "slacker" surfaced again during World War II, it eventually came to be disassociated with military service altogether, and is rarely mentioned in published defamation opinions after the 1920's. One exception was in 2010, when an Arizona woman, whose manager had called her a "B***h, Idiot and Slacker," argued that the term was susceptible to a defamatory meaning.

The Arizona District Court disagreed. Without reference to military service, war, or even general laziness, the Court viewed the statement merely as a generic "form of verbal abuse." By this time, of course, "Slacker" was best-known simply the name of a movie about unemployed hipsters. According to the Court, being identified as one was just the sort of innocuous name-calling that was "regarded as a part of life for which the law of defamation affords no remedy."

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