When “Slacker” Was A Dirty Word: Defamation And Draft Dodging During World War I

by Foley Hoag LLP - Trademark, Copyright & Unfair Competition

1917 Navy Recruiting PosterThis 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.

The Slacker Lists

Liberty Bond PosterThe 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 TimesBy 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 4Many 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

Slacker 5The 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 LinklaterAlthough 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.”



DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Foley Hoag LLP - Trademark, Copyright & Unfair Competition | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Foley Hoag LLP - Trademark, Copyright & Unfair Competition

Foley Hoag LLP - Trademark, Copyright & Unfair Competition on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.