Sedition Act of 1918 Enacted. Imprisons Hundreds for Anti-War Speech

The Sedition Act of 1918 was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917 passed by Congress at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, who was concerned that any antiwar speech and organizing to oppose the draft and the war effort constituted a real threat to an American victory. Congress passed a measure, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, that made it punishable by up to 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States” — a blatant violation of the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

Surprisingly, the Supreme Court unanimously held the law did not violate the First Amendment. It held that words which ordinarily would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances a to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent.

While much of the debate focused on the law’s precise language, there was considerable opposition in the Senate, almost entirely from Republicans like Henry Cabot Lodge and Hiram Johnson, the former speaking in defense of free speech and the latter assailing the administration for failing to use the laws already in place. Former President Theodore Roosevelt voiced opposition as well.

The act, along with other similar federal laws, was used to convict at least 877 people in 1919 and 1920, according to a report by the attorney general. In 1919, the Court heard several important free speech cases — including Debs v. United States and Abrams v. United States — involving the constitutionality of the law. In both cases, the Court upheld the convictions as well as the law.

Those convicted under the act generally received sentences of imprisonment for five to 20 years. The act also allowed the Postmaster General to deny mail delivery to dissenters of government policy during wartime. The Espionage Act made it a crime to help wartime enemies of the United States, but the Sedition Act made it a crime to utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States’ form of government.

One could go to jail for cursing or criticizing the government, even if what one said was true,” a 2005 NIH report on the 1918 Flu Pandemic said, noting that even a U.S. congressman was eventually put in jail for violating the law. At the same time, the federal government launched a huge propaganda effort, which prompted one of the architects of it to remark, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms…. There is nothing in experience to tell us that one is always preferable to the other…. The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

The NIH report further stated:

The combination of rigid control and disregard for truth had dangerous consequences. Focusing on the shortest term, local officials almost universally told half-truths or outright lies to avoid damaging morale and the war effort. They were assisted–not challenged–by the press, which although not censored in a technical sense cooperated fully with the government’s propaganda machine.

Most U.S. newspapers “showed no antipathy toward the act” and “far from opposing the measure, the leading papers seemed actually to lead the movement in behalf of its speedy enactment.”

The law was repealed on December 13, 1920.

Sedition Act

Sec. 3. Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements, or say or do anything except by way of bona fide and not disloyal advice to an investor or investors, with intent to obstruct the sale by the United States of bonds or other securities of the United States or the making of loans by or to the United States, and whoever when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause, or incite or attempt to incite, insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct or attempt to obstruct the recruiting or enlistment services of the United States, and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute, or shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States, or to promote the cause of its enemies, or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully by utterance, writing, printing, publication, or language spoken, urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things, product or products, necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war in which the United States may be engaged, with intent by such curtailment to cripple or hinder the United States in the prosecution of war, and whoever shall willfully advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated, and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or the imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both: Provided, That any employee or official of the United States Government who commits any disloyal act or utters any unpatriotic or disloyal language, or who, in an abusive and violent manner criticizes the Army or Navy or the flag of the United States shall be at once dismissed from the service. . . .

Sec. 4. When the United States is at war, the Postmaster General may, upon evidence satisfactory to him that any person or concern is using the mails in violation of any of the provisions of this Act, instruct the postmaster at any post office at which mail is received addressed to such person or concern to return to the postmaster at the office at which they were originally mailed all letters or other matter so addressed, with the words ‘Mail to this address undeliverable under Espionage Act’ plainly written or stamped upon the outside thereof, and all such letters or other matter so returned to such postmasters shall be by them returned to the senders thereof under such regulations as the Postmaster General may prescribe.

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