Sedition Act 40 Stat. 553 (1918)

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SEDITION ACT 40 Stat. 553 (1918)

As world war i progressed, enthusiastic war supporters argued more and more that the espionage act of 1917 did not adequately restrict domestic critics of the war effort. Advocates of additional restriction argued that weakness of the existing loyalty legislation forced citizens to take the law into their own hands. If firmer federal policies could be established, such distasteful forms of repression might be averted. Thus a more restrictive amendment to the Espionage Act was proposed and, despite strong congressional protest that the measure virtually terminated freedom of expression, was signed into law on May 16, 1918. The amendment, called the Sedition Act, defined eight offenses punishable by $10,000 fine or more than twenty years in prison, or both. The new offenses included: uttering, printing, writing, or publishing any dis-loyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language intended to cause contempt, scorn, contumely or disrepute as regards the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution, or the flag, or the uniform or the Army or Navy, or any language intended to incite resistance to the United States or to promote the cause of its enemies; urging any curtailment of production or anything necessary to the prosecution of the war with intent to hinder its prosecution; advocating, teaching, defending, or suggesting the doing of any of these acts; and words or acts supporting or favoring the cause of any country at war with the United States, or opposing the cause of the United States therein.

The 1918 act also enlarged the censorship functions of the postmaster general, empowering him to refuse to deliver mail to any individual or business employing the mails in violation of the statute. He was to order a letter that he deemed undeliverable to be returned to the sender with the phrase "Mail to this address undeliverable under the Espionage Act" stamped on the envelope. Thus the postmaster general was empowered to damage or destroy the business or reputation of any American citizen.

Enforced extensively in the period from May to November 1918, the measure virtually terminated wartime criticism until the Armistice. While efforts were made to reenact its provisions in a peace-time sedition statute during the a. mitchell palmer "red scare" period, Congress balked and ultimately took the act off the books in March 1921.

The extremely broad language of the act would today make it vulnerable to attack on the grounds of overbreadth. In 1919, however, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of five anarchists for circulating a leaflet urging curtailment of war production and encouraging resistance to the participation of U.S. forces in opposition to the Russian revolution. Justice oliver wendell holmes wrote a famous dissent, joined by Justice louis d. brandeis, in abrams v. united states (1919).

(See clear and present danger.)

Paul L. Murphy


Murphy, Paul L. 1979 World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States. New York: Norton.