Was the U.S justified in limiting the civil liberties of its citizens during World War I?

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mrkirschner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question refers to the Espionage and Sedition Acts that were passed during America's involvement in World War I. The Espionage Act of 1917 was not very controversial. It called for the prosecution of any citizen that acted in a way that would harm America's war effort. This law, however, caused a lot of confusion and actually saw a rise in vigilantes because it was vague in its definition of espionage. The law was enhanced with a series of measures that are commonly called the Sedition Acts. These addendums were a serious threat to free speech and the free press as it outlawed the dissemination of any material that spoke out against the government, military, or the war effort.

The question of suspending civil liberties during times of crisis seems to surface at least once every generation. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the Japanese Internment Camps of World War II to the Patriot Acts after 2001, civil liberties have been abridged by the federal government in response to some perceived threat. Since most of these crises dealt with fighting tyranny in other lands, I think it is a stretch to say that civil liberties should be curtailed at home to aid the fight against tyranny abroad.

When the United States Constitution was being debated, there was a significant contingency of anti-federalists that felt the document gave too much power to the federal government. They fought tirelessly for a document to guarantee civil liberties and freedoms. In fact, they threatened to undermine ratification if individual liberties were not protected. Their efforts resulted in ten amendments to the Constitution called the Bill of Rights. The framers of this document did not provide for these liberties to be compressed in times of crisis. In fact, it could be stated that the Bill of Rights was written during a time of stress as Americans were attempting to fix an economy that was wrecked with debt and social unrest. Having said all of this, it is hard for me to support the government's assertion that its citizens should have to give away basic rights like speech, opinion, and political discourse during times of war or economic duress.