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Espionage and Sedition Acts of World War I

Espionage and Sedition Acts of World War I (1917, 1918) were the first forays since 1798 into federal regulation of First Amendment rights.These criminalizations of certain forms of expression, belief, and association resulted in the prosecution of over 2,000 cases, but in reaction they also produced a movement to protect the civil liberties of all Americans.

The Espionage Act (15 June 1917), enacted quickly by Congress following the U.S. declaration of war on Germany, authorized federal officials to make summary arrests of people whose opinions “threatened national security.” The measure prohibited willfully making false reports with intent to interfere with the success of the military or naval forces, inciting insubordination, disloyalty, or mutiny in the military, and obstructing recruitment or the enlistment service of the United States. Further sections authorized the Postmaster General to ban from the mails material advocating resistance to any law of the United States. This gave Post Office officials in the Wilson administration virtual dictatorial control over circulation of the nation's subsidiary press.

Realizing that the vagueness of the Espionage Act opened up opportunities for broad repression by government officials, as well as for mob violence and vigilante action, Congress augmented it with the Sedition Act on 16 May 1918. This set forth eight new criminal offenses, including uttering, printing, writing, or publishing any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language intended to cause contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrespect for the U.S. government or the Constitution.

Before its repeal in 1921, the Sedition Act led to numerous arrests, particularly of dissident radicals, but also of important figures such as the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. The Espionage Act remained on the books to be invoked in the post–World War II period to charge certain controversial figures such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused of atomic espionage, with being a threat to the United States in the Cold War.
[See also Alien and Sedition Acts; Civil Liberties and War; Schenk and Abrams Cases.]


Harry N. Scheiber , The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties, 1960.
Paul L. Murphy , World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States, 1979.

Paul L. Murphy

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