Espionage and Sedition Acts

Espionage and Sedition Acts
Espionage and Sedition Acts

On June 17, 1917, little over two months after the United States entered World War I as an associated power of the Allies, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which criminalized the provision to any party by any party of any information when the intent was to interfere with the success of the American armed forces.

The wording of the law was general rather than enumerating specific potential instances, and a year after its passing socialist Eugene Debs was arrested for obstructing military recruiting with an antiwar speech delivered in Canton, Ohio. He ran for president from prison as a way to draw public attention to his fate and was pardoned by President Harding after serving a third of his sentence.

Dozens of socialist and antiwar newspapers and magazines were forced to avoid coverage of the war, suspend publication, or risk having the Postmaster General revoke their right to use the mails. The law was challenged in Schenck v. United States, when Charles Schenck was arrested for circulating a pamphlet calling for resistance to the draft; the Supreme Court upheld the law, and its decision introduced two common phrases of American legal language.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the author of the decision, said first that the guarantee of free speech did not protect words that presented a "clear and present danger," and that "the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater."

In 1918 the Sedition Act extended the bounds of the Espionage Act, outlawing various instances of speech against the government. Most of the laws associated with the two acts were repealed in 1921.