100th anniversary of the Sedition Act is a reminder of repressions not to repeat

By Carolyn Dale - May 2017

Laws passed to forbid criticism of the federal government and military result in more than 2,000 people being prosecuted, including public speakers, editors of newspapers and magazines, and ordinary citizens. Even a presidential candidate is imprisoned, and hundreds of people are forcibly deported to the Soviet Union, by the time the laws are repealed four years later.

This may sound like a foreign country, a culture that is new to democracy and still struggling against dictatorial tendencies. But it describes the United States 100 years ago this spring, when Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts. In that era, deep distrust of media, combined with pro-war propaganda and intolerance toward immigrants, led to severe repression of free speech in our country.

With similar political tensions growing today, many cite the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II as a warning for past wrongs we must avoid. Going further back to World War I shows an additional set of dangers.

In April 1917, Congress voted to join the war in Europe, and two months later it passed the Espionage Act. The idea of entering the war had not been popular, and the federal government waged an enormous propaganda effort to win American citizens’ support. Both radio and film were new mass media, and European governments, especially the British, were successfully whipping up war frenzy with propaganda techniques such as atrocity stories.

In an eerie precursor to Russia’s efforts to sway our 2016 elections, Britain was the nation that spread propaganda in the United States. The purpose, though, was to urge the U.S. to join the fight against Germany. Phillip Knightley, in “The First Casualty,” describes how British intelligence closely studied American media so they could shape and disseminate pro-war articles that newspapers were most likely to pick up and use.

The Espionage Act was aimed at protecting the military’s ability to recruit soldiers and run its operations, and at prohibiting any support of the country’s enemies.

But a group of amendments to it were aimed at limiting free speech. These became known as the Sedition Act, and according to “Mass Media Law,” by Don R. Pember and Clay Calvert, about 2,000 people were prosecuted under the Act, of whom 900 were convicted; one was Eugene Debs, who was a socialist candidate for President when he was imprisoned.

The U.S. and its European allies successfully defeated Germany. By 1918, though, Russia had gone through its revolution, and American leaders became worried about Bolshevism, or the “Red Scare.”

The fear attached to ideas such as socialism, anarchism, and even trade union organizing, and this shows up in the Act’s broad prohibitions. It became a crime to “utter or print or write or publish disloyal or profane language that was intended to cause contempt of, or scorn for, the federal government, the Constitution, the flag or the uniform of the armed forces,” according to Pember and Calvert. Penalties included up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $10,000.

In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for the power to censor the country’s press, arguing that this was essential for public safety. But Congress balked and turned him down—by a one-vote margin. There would be no prior restraint; in other words, the government could not prevent articles from being printed ahead of time. But it could punish the writers afterwards, and it did.

Congress gave a key control to the Postmaster General: He could refuse to mail a publication if he thought it contained seditious material. The U.S. Post Office censored thousands of newspapers, books, and pamphlets. It also revoked valuable second-class mailing privileges for some publications, which damaged them financially.

Some states passed their own laws to exert more local control; statutes even barred displaying a red flag, or a black flag. Punishment fell not only on newspapers, but also on people who wrote letters to a publication’s editor that criticized the war effort or related governmental actions.

The public at the time also showed impatience with high levels of recent immigration, and in 1917, Congress passed a law requiring immigrants to pass a literacy test. Historians Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager wrote that this was aimed at stemming the flow of immigrants from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe.

Thousands of aliens were arrested and threatened with deportation—which did take place. Hundreds of foreign-born Americans, including the labor leader Emma Goldman, were forcibly deported on a ship headed to the newly created Soviet Union.

It’s frightening to think of the conditions that are similar today. Several states are considering legislation to criminalize protests and demonstrations. We’re beginning to see how Russia has saturated online media with false stories and propaganda aimed at weakening Americans’ trust in democratic processes.

And social conditions are powerful in themselves. The public doesn’t know what to believe among social and online media, and even distrusts established news media well known for diligent research and fact-checking. The President encourages intolerance toward immigrants, and his administration makes sustained efforts to persuade us, the public, of things that are not true.

At least it’s not yet a crime for me to make these statements.

Well past the end of World War I, in 1921, the Sedition Act was repealed. The Espionage Act remains, and though it has been altered over time, it was used to cite Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, and Edward Snowden, who leaked data a few years ago showing national security surveillance of ordinary citizens.

We may think it’s quaint to look back one hundred years and see how readily people were manipulated into supporting a war and suppressing their own civil rights. Just ten years after the Acts were passed, in 1927, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis examined why the propaganda of the time had been so effective.

Among other factors, the researchers found that atrocity stories, which later turned out to be fake, were highly moving and emotionally involving. When audiences heard these on the radio or saw the claims made in films, they had so little experience with these new media that they couldn’t examine the messages critically. They had no way to test the validity of the information, and hence were prone to believe the content.

The parallel today parallel lies with how new social media and online news still are, in our society. It’s difficult to identify fake news, we respond emotionally to things that seem outrageous, and we tend to believe what friends and family forward to us.

With these new media, we can’t help but be naïve—maybe even emotional and gullible. But, until we’re more expert at critically examining social and online articles, we can look back at history and recognize wrongs that we don’t want to repeat. The dilemmas of 1917, one hundred years ago this spring, have much to tell us.

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