By: Woodrow Wilson
Date: May 16, 1918
Source: Wilson, Woodrow. Sedition Act, 1918. United States Statutes at Large, vol. 40, April 1917–March 1919. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1919, 553–554. Available online at ; website home page: http://www.azimuth.harcourtcollege.com (accessed April 9, 2003). About the Author: Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), the twenty-eighth president of the United States and former president of Princeton University, was drafted as head of the Democratic ticket in 1912 and won against a split Republican Party with just over 40 percent of the vote. Progressive legislation at home, the Great War abroad, and the Versailles peace treaty shaped Wilson's presidency. Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.
President Woodrow Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916 on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of the War"—that is, he had successfully prevented America's entrance into World War I (1914–18). His certitude about the war, though, had begun to waver with the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania in May 1915 and discovery of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram in January 1917. The German submarine attack on the Lusitania resulted in the deaths of 124 Americans (1,198 total deaths). The telegram, intercepted by British intelligence officers, revealed a possible plot between Germany and Mexico to invade the United States from the south.
Less than five months after winning reelection, Wilson altered his position on the conflict and called for Congress to declare war on the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) in April 1917. The president argued that the German submarine attacks on noncombatant vessels represented "warfare against all mankind." Facing such a threat, and in spite of his own opposition to women's suffrage at home, Wilson concluded that the United States must enter the war to "make the world safe for democracy." One month after U.S. entry, the Wilson administration passed the Selective Service Act in May 1917 and faced enormous public protest. For millions of antiwar activists, the president's change of heart struck them as duplicitous. Moreover, the draft instituted with Selective Service created an outpouring of antiwar sentiment.
The Wilson administration crafted the Espionage Act of June 1917 to quell popular dissent. The Espionage Act broadly defined treasonous activity. Prohibited actions included hindering military recruitment and disclosing secret defense information to the enemy. As the war continued into 1918, with just under one thousand people arrested under the Espionage Act, Congress passed the Sedition Act, of May 1918.
The Sedition Act forbade published material that called for an end to the war. The language of the act, though, provided an expansive view of what specific acts could be prevented by the government. The law was geared not only at silencing critical media; its language seemed to suppress all antiwar protest. Moreover, the language also prohibited any protests against the government that might hinder the war effort, even if the protests did not explicitly concern the war.
With penalties up to a fine of $10,000 and twenty years imprisonment, the law forbade anyone who "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 shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States, … or shall willfully by utterance, writing, printing, publication, or language spoken, urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country.…" Thus, the act expanded the provisions of the Espionage Act to target directly rights many believed to be protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. According to the wording of this measure, sedition encompassed any speech or writing that criticized the government. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer used the Sedition and Espionage Acts to arrest 1,500 radicals and left-wing protesters, as well as deport more than two hundred suspected Communists to the Soviet Union.
These laws spurred the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Supreme Court would decide the constitutionality of both within two years of their passage. In Schenck v. U.S. (1919) and Abrams v. U.S. (1919), the Supreme Court ruled that the acts provided constitutional methods of preserving national security during times of war. Just as "free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled in Schenck, Congress possesses the right to prevent "words… of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger" that "substantive evils" will be committed.
By the time he dissented in Abrams, though, Holmes had changed his mind concerning civil liberties during times of war. Then, he argued that "the principle of the right to free speech is always the same," regardless of whether the speech comes during war or peace. While the majority of the Court ruled that the Sedition Act legally prevented speech that threatened security during wartime, Holmes' ringing declaration against the law remains one of the strongest endorsements of the freedom of speech ever offered by a Supreme Court Justice.
Debate over the basic issues covered in the Sedition Act continued long after the end of World War I. The question of whether antigovernment protest should be prohibited during war sparked massive divisions in the coming years, especially during the Vietnam War.
Primary Source: Sedition Act, 1918
SYNOPSIS: When Congress passed the Sedition Act, in May 1918, the United States had been involved in World War I for just over one year. Hundreds of thousands of antiwar demonstrators had argued vehemently against American participation in the conflict. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Communists seized power there in part on an anti-war platform, and the Wilson administration feared similar revolts at home. The war would soon end with the armistice agreement of November 11,1918. But the core arguments raised by the law remain. Should the U.S. government forbid antiwar protests? What forms of protest should be prohibited to protect national security?
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 toan 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.
Approved, May 16, 1918.
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