Alien Registration Act

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Alien Registration Act

In the early years of World War II (1939–45), some Americans were concerned that foreigners and subversive, or revolutionary, groups were plotting to undermine the U.S. government. Although the United States had not yet entered the war, Congress passed the Alien Registration Act in 1940 to address some of these concerns.

The Alien Registration Act was proposed by U.S. representative Howard W. Smith (1883–1976) of Virginia , so the law was also called the Smith Act. It was quite controversial, because it severely limited free speech aimed at criticizing the U.S. government. It also required all noncitizen adults to register with the United States, hence the name of the act. Section I imposed a $10,000 fine and time in prison for those who attempted to undermine the morale of U.S. soldiers.

Sections II and III imposed similar penalties for those who supported or encouraged the overthrow of the government. Merely teaching or advising such action was not allowed, even without taking active steps. The Smith Act also outlawed the publication and distribution of material that advocated a revolution or the organization of a rebellious group. The act prohibited attempts to violate any part of the law. A 1948 revision made conviction somewhat harder by requiring proof of overt acts to advocate or attempt the overthrow of the government. Merely harboring such beliefs was no longer prohibited under the act.

During the 1940s and 1950s, more than a hundred people were charged with violation of the Smith Act. Only twenty-nine served time in prison for their conduct. The government targeted enforcement activity at members of communist and socialist organizations. (Communism and socialism are both economic and political theories that advocate communal ownership of property, and support governments in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state for the good of all citizens.) Cases were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court . In 1951, the Court found that the act did not violate rights under the U.S. Constitution . In 1957, however, the Court decided that teaching or advocating the overthrow of the government is constitutionally protected free speech. After that decision speech had to be accompanied by subversive action in order to be a punishable offense.