The Sedition Act of 1918 (Pub.L. 65-150, 40 Stat. 553, enacted 16 May 1918) was an Act of the United States Congress that extended the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover a broader range of offenses, notably speech and the expression of opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light or interfered with the sale of government bonds.
It forbade the use of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces or that caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt. Those convicted under the act generally received sentences of imprisonment for five to 20 years. The act also allowed the Postmaster General to refuse to deliver mail that met those same standards for punishable speech or opinion. It applied only to times “when the United States is in war.” The US was in a declared state of war at the time of passage, the First World War. The law was repealed on 13 December 1920.
Though the legislation enacted in 1918 is commonly called the Sedition Act, it was actually a set of amendments to the Espionage Act. Therefore, many studies of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act find it difficult to report on the two “acts” separately. For example, one historian reports that “some fifteen hundred prosecutions were carried out under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, resulting in more than a thousand convictions.” Court decisions do not use the shorthand term Sedition Act, but the correct legal term for the law, the Espionage Act, whether as originally enacted or as amended in 1918.
Refer to World War I.
The Espionage Act of 1917 made it a crime to interfere with the war effort, disrupt military recruitment, or to attempt to aid a nation at war with the US Wartime violence on the part of local groups of citizens, sometimes mobs or vigilantes, persuaded some lawmakers that the law was inadequate. In their view the country was witnessing instances of public disorder that represented the public’s own attempt to punish unpopular speech in light of the government’s inability to do so. Amendments to enhance the government’s authority under the Espionage Act would prevent mobs from doing what the government was not able to.
Debate and Enactment
President Wilson and his Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory viewed the bill as a political compromise. They hoped to avoid hearings that would embarrass the administration for its failure to prosecute offensive speech. They also feared other proposals that would have withdrawn prosecutorial authority from the Justice Department and placed it in the War Department, creating a sort of civilian court-martial process of questionable constitutionality. The final vote for passage was 48 to 26 in the Senate and 293 to 1 in the House of Representatives, with the sole dissenting vote in the House cast by Socialist Meyer London of New York.
While much of the debate focused on the law’s precise language, there was considerable opposition in the Senate, almost entirely from Republicans, especially Henry Cabot Lodge and Hiram Johnson. Johnson defended free speech and Lodge complained the administration had failed to use the laws already in place. Former President Theodore Roosevelt voiced opposition as well.
Officials in the Justice Department who had little enthusiasm for the law nevertheless hoped that even without generating many prosecutions it would help quiet public calls for more government action against those thought to be insufficiently patriotic.
Enforcement and Constitutional Challenges
Most US newspapers “showed no antipathy toward the act” and “far from opposing the measure, the leading papers seemed actually to lead the movement in behalf of its speedy enactment.”
The legislation came so late in the war, just a few months before Armistice Day, that prosecutions under the provisions of the Sedition Act were few. One notable case was that of Mollie Steimer, convicted under the Espionage Act as amended by the Sedition Act. US Attorneys at first had considerable discretion in using these laws, until Attorney General Gregory, a few weeks before the end of the war, instructed them not to act without his approval. Enforcement varied greatly from one jurisdiction to the next, with most activity in the Western states where the Industrial Workers of the World labour union was active. For example, Marie Equi was arrested for giving a speech at the WWI hall in Portland, Oregon, and was convicted after the war was over.
In April 1918, the government arrested industrialist William C. Edenborn, a naturalised citizen from Germany, at his railroad business in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was accused of speaking “disloyally” when he allegedly belittled the threat of Germany to the security of the United States.
In June 1918, the Socialist Party figure Eugene V. Debs of Indiana was arrested for violating the Sedition Act by undermining the government’s conscription efforts. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served his sentence in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary from 13 April 1919, until December 1921, when President Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served. In March 1919, President Wilson, at the suggestion of Attorney General Gregory, released or reduced the sentences of some two hundred prisoners convicted under the Espionage Act or the Sedition Act.
With the act rendered inoperative by the end of hostilities, Attorney General (AG) A. Mitchell Palmer waged a public campaign, not unrelated to his own campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, in favour of a peacetime version of the Sedition Act. He sent a circular outlining his rationale to newspaper editors in January 1919, citing the dangerous foreign-language press and radical attempts to create unrest in African American communities. He testified in favour of such a law in early June 1920. At one point, Congress had more than 70 versions of proposed language and amendments for such a bill, but it took no action on the controversial proposal during the campaign year of 1920. After a court decision later in June cited AG Palmer’s anti-radical campaign for its abuse of power, the conservative Christian Science Monitor found itself unable to support him any more, writing on 25 June 1920: “What appeared to be an excess of radicalism…was certainly met with…an excess of suppression.” The Alien Registration Act of 1940 was the first American peacetime sedition act.
The US Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act in Abrams v. United States (1919), as applied to people urging curtailment of production of essential war material. Oliver Wendell Holmes used his dissenting opinion to make a commentary on what has come to be known as “the marketplace of ideas”. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions, such as Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), make it unlikely that similar legislation would be considered constitutional today.
As part of a sweeping repeal of wartime laws, Congress repealed the Sedition Act on 13 December 1920. In 1921, president Woodrow Wilson offered clemency to most of those convicted under the Sedition Act.
- Sedition Act of 1798, outlawing false statements criticising the American government, which expired in 1801.
- Smith Act of 1940, passed in anticipation of World War II and later used against alleged Communist agents.
- Violent Radicalisation and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007, a failed bill which would have taken measures against domestic terrorism.
- Palmer Raids.