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Espionage and Sedition Acts

Woodrow Wilson

Espionage and Sedition Acts: Woodrow Wilson was the 28th American President who served in office from March 4, 1913 to March 4, 1921. One of the important events during his presidency was the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

Definition and Summary of the Espionage and Sedition Acts
Summary and definition:
The Espionage and Sedition Acts made it a crime to interfere with the operations of the military to promote the success of its enemies and prohibited many forms of speech perceived as disloyal to the United States of America. The Espionage Act of 1917 was enacted on June 15, 1917.

The law was extended on May 16, 1918, by the Sedition Act of 1918 (a set of amendments to the Espionage Act prohibiting many forms of speech).

Espionage and Sedition Acts Facts for kids: Fast Fact Sheet
Fast, fun facts and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's) about the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

When were the Espionage and Sedition Acts passed? The Espionage Act was passed on June 15, 1917 and extended by the Sedition Act on  May 16, 1918

What was the purpose of the Espionage and Sedition Acts of WW1? The reasons Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts during WW1 were:

The purpose of the Espionage Act was to prohibit interference with military operations, to ban support of U.S. enemies during wartime or to promote insubordination in the military.

The Espionage Act gave US postal officials the authority to prohibit the mailing of  newspapers and magazines. The law also threatened individuals convicted of obstructing the draft (military recruitment) with $10,000 fines and 20 years in jail.

The U.S. Congress amended the Espionage law with the Sedition Act of 1918. Its purpose was to make it illegal to write or speak anything critical of American involvement in the war.

The Sedition Act of 1918 made it a federal offense to use "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the Constitution, the government, the American uniform, or the US flag.

Facts about Espionage and Sedition Acts
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Espionage and Sedition Acts.

WW1 began in Europe on July 28, 1914. The United States adopted a policy of neutrality at the start of the war and did not enter conflict until April 6, 1917.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts enacted during WW1 were the first forays since 1798 into federal regulation of First Amendment in the Bill of Rights that detailed the Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression in the Constitution.

The passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts led to much argument, objections and disagreements. Martin Madden of Illinois, famously stated that "while we are fighting to establish the democracy of the world, we ought not to do the thing that will establish autocracy in America."

The 1917 Espionage Act authorized federal officials to arrest people whose opinions "threatened national security". It gave the government “wide powers to suppress free expression” and the “ability to punish unfriendly opinions”

The Espionage Act prohibited:

  • Prohibited people from intentionally making false reports in order to interfere with the success of the military or naval forces

  • Prohibited people from inciting insubordination, disloyalty, or mutiny in the military

  • Prohibited people from obstructing recruitment in the United States armed forces

The Espionage Act virtually gave US Post Office officials dictatorial control over circulation of the nation's supplementary press.

Congress augmented the Espionage Act with the Sedition Act in order to prohibit speaking, writing, or publishing any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language intended to cause contempt, scorn or disrespect for the United States government, or the US Constitution.

The US government prosecuted over 2,100 people under the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

Political dissenters bore the brunt of the repression. Eugene V. Debs, founder of the American Railroad Union (ARU) urged socialists to resist militarism and went to prison for nearly 3 years.

Kate Richards O'Hare, an American Socialist Party activist, toured the country making speeches against the war. She served 1 year in prison for stating that American women were "nothing more nor less than brood sows, to raise children to get into the army and be made into fertilizer."

169 Political dissenters and leaders of the radical labor organization, the International Workers of the World (IWW) were arrested and imprisoned

Rose Pastor Stokes was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for writing in a newspaper, "I am for the people, while the government is for the profiteers."

Robert Goldstein, a motion picture producer, had made a movie about the American Revolutionary War called "The Spirit of '76" before the United States entered WW1. When Goldstein released the movie, after the declaration of war, he was accused of undermining American morale. In the legal case of United States v. Motion Picture Film "The Spirit of '76" (1917), a federal court upheld government seizure of the film because it depicted atrocities committed by British soldiers and might therefore undermine support for an ally. The producer, Robert Goldstein, was sentenced to a 10 year prison term and fined $5,000.

The Supreme Court Limited Free Speech in the landmark case of Schenck v the United States (1919). The Supreme Court ruled that an individual’s freedom of speech could be curbed when
the words spoken constituted a “clear and present danger.”

The passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts lead to a climate of fear and suspicion in America. German Americans under suspicion and mobs attacked socialists, labor activists and pacifists.

The American Protective League (APL) was established in which private citizens worked with Federal law enforcement agencies during WW1 to identify suspected German sympathizers and to counteract the activities of anti-war activists. The American Protective League boasted 250,000 members in 600 cities.

Other volunteer enforcement organizations such as the Knights of Liberty, American Rights League, American Defense Society, Sedition Slammers, the National Security League, and the Terrible Threateners were also established to spy on their fellow citizens and often used methods of intimidation and harassment.

The Boy Spies of America were a children's association whose members were encouraged to spy on neighbors and demand to inspect draft cards.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts continue to be the most controversial laws ever passed in the United States.

US American History
1913-1928: WW1 & Prohibition

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