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Civil liberties were restricted in World War I through laws passed by Congress. The two most important of these were the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. What these laws did was essentially to ban criticism of a variety of government activities. The laws were aimed at suppressing any dissent against the war. In order to do this, these laws did such things as banning any speech that was disloyal or that would cause people to view the government with contempt. These were very broad restrictions on civil liberties, particularly given the fact that people violating them could be punished by imprisonment.
As noted above, the Espionage Act of 1917 and the use of the Sedition Act of 1798 both played a role in the restriction of civil liberties during World War I. The Espionage Act of 1917 was passed by Congress and signed by Woodrow Wilson, but it left the task of enforcement up to US attorneys in various states and so enforcement and the use of the Act varied widely.
The actions included the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist Party candidate for president and the seizure of a film titled The Spirit of '76 on the grounds that its depiction of cruelty on the part of the British would foment anger towards our ally. The Postmaster General also used the occasion to encourage postmasters to spy on the public and many of them then refused to mail certain publications on the grounds that they would interfere with the war effort.
Civil liberties were seriously stifled during World War 1 and this was because the government was out to legitimize their engagement in the war against the Germans. The government’s action was geared towards garnering the citizens’ support both willingly and unwillingly. As mentioned above the Sedition Act of 1798 and the Espionage Act of 1917 sought to curtail civil rights as protected by the constitution. This was done to ensure that no individual or group would interfere with the enlistment program and the American war efforts. The government also took this opportunity to pursue individuals who were deemed enemies of the state. The Acts also ensured that criticism and dissent by the public was heavily restricted and declared as crimes that were punishable by heavy fines or long term imprisonment.
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