World War I

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How were civil liberties restricted during World War I? 

Civil liberties were restricted during World War I through the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which were used to ban and punish criticism of the government and war. Additionally, some immigrants were arrested, denied a hearing, and deported because they were believed to support the Germans.

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When the United States began mobilizing for war in 1917, certain civil liberties were among the first casualties. There had been a lot of resistance to the idea of joining the conflict. With the need for a draft to quickly build up the military, many supporters of the war were afraid that the naysayers were going to be a real problem. That is why Congress quickly passed laws aimed at silencing dissent. This started with the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act the next year. These two acts significantly curtailed First Amendment rights. These laws made it illegal to say or print anything that could be construed as "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language" against the United States, its government, and fighting forces. Those who violated these laws could be fined or sentenced to up to twenty years in prison.

This led to a heavy censoring of the press. The Espionage Act allowed the U.S. postmaster general to refuse to mail any publication that he considered unpatriotic in its support of the war effort. This led to a number of radical newspapers actually going out of business. Others heavily restricted their editorial mission to comply with the government's wishes.

Many people, including presidential candidate Eugene Debs, were actually jailed for publically expressing their opposition to the war. Over 1,200 individuals were jailed for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts. This was seen by many, even at the time, as a gross violation of a citizen's freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Furthermore, the civil liberties of many immigrants were violated. Many were arrested and deported without a court hearing merely on the suspicion that they held sympathies with the Germans.

As can be seen, fervor for the war effort caused many Americans, including those in government, to disregard and even outrightly violate many of the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

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As others have written, the government cracked down on civil liberties during World War I. There was widespread dissent related to entering the war and to the draft, and, in response, the government passed the Espionage Act of 1917. While the intent of this act was not to curb dissent, the courts used it to punish dissenters. The Sedition Act of 1918 added to the Espionage Act by criminalizing the act of speaking out against the government or using profane language to refer to the government.

Private individuals, the US Post Office, and other entities such as the American Protective League (or APL, a private organization that worked with the FBI) turned over people they thought were opposed to government policies related to the war. The APL also forced German-Americans to sign an oath of allegiance and conducted surveillance of German-American organizations. The US Postal Service confiscated magazines they deemed unpatriotic. Over 2,000 people were punished for opposing the war, and some received 10 to 20 years in prison from judges eager to crack down on dissent. As a result, public debate about the war was largely squashed, and former Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was arrested for speaking against the draft in 1918. Though he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and stripped of the right to vote, he ran again for President in 1920, and his sentence was eventually commuted.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Sedition Act with its 1919 decision in Abrams v. The United States. Though the Congress repealed the Sedition Act in 1920, people had to continue to serve their prison sentences for dissent. In addition, a federal court in United States v. Motion Picture Film (1917) upheld the conviction against movie producer Robert Goldstein and the seizure of his film, The Spirit of '76. The charge was that as the film depicted the cruelty of British soldiers during the Revolution, it was damaging to America's wartime ally, Great Britain. Goldstein's sentence of 10 years was later commuted to 3 years after an appeal.

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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.

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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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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.

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