Sedition Act of 1918

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Sedition Act of 1918

An Amendment to Section 3 of the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917


By: U.S. Congress

Date: May 16, 1918

Source: The World War One Document Archive. "The Sedition Act, 1918." <> (accessed May 18, 2006).

About the Author: The U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, which enacted this legislation, are the two houses of the U.S. Congress. The U.S. Congress is the legislative or law-making branch of the American government.


In early April 1917, the United States entered World War I, which had been raging since 1914. Nationalistic sentiment ran high, and there was little sympathy for the idea of dissident free speech. "We must have no criticism now," said a former Secretary of War, Elihu Root (1845–1937). On June 15, 1917, the Espionage Act was passed. Although ostensibly an anti-spying measure, it also contained language that could be (and was) used to prosecute anyone who criticized U.S. participation in the war. It specified penalties for anyone who, "when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces.…" However, many citizens wanted an additional law to explicitly criminalize any form of speech critical of the war. A number of states and cities passed statewide or community anti-sedition ordinances in 1917 and 1918. Sedition is defined as any speech or act that incites discontent with or rebellion against a government.

Communities with large numbers of German immigrants were especially suspected of sedition because Germany was the nation's primary opponent in the war. In Oklahoma, for example, the state Loyalty Bureau employed secret agents to infiltrate German-American communities and expose signs of disloyalty. Oklahoma and some other states passed laws banning the speaking or teaching of the German language, and in some locales German-language books were burned. Some German words were replaced by patriotic-sounding phrases: for the word "sauerkraut," for example, pro-war Americans often substituted "victory cabbage." In May 1918, Montana's state anti-sedition law became the basis for an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917 that was known as the Sedition Act. (The wording of the federal statute was almost identical to that of the Montana statute.) The new law included the language of the original Espionage Act about forbidding incitement to insubordination and further forbade virtually any criticism or disparagement whatsoever of the government, military, or flag.


Sec. 3 Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements, or say or do anything except by way of bona fide and not disloyal advice to an investor or investors, with intent to obstruct the sale by the United States of bonds or other securities of the United States or the making of loans by or to the United States, and whoever when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause, or incite or attempt to incite, insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct or attempt to obstruct the recruiting or enlistment services of the United States, and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute, or shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States, or to promote the cause of its enemies, or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully by utterance, writing, printing, publication, or language spoken, urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things, product or products, necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war in which the United States may be engaged, with intent by such curtailment to cripple or hinder the United States in the prosecution of war, and whoever shall willfully advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated, and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or the imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both: Provided, That any employee or official of the United States Government who commits any disloyal act or utters any unpatriotic or disloyal language, or who, in an abusive and violent manner criticizes the Army or Navy or the flag of the United States shall be at once dismissed from the service.…

Sec. 4 When the United States is at war, the Postmaster General may, upon evidence satisfactory to him that any person or concern is using the mails in violation of any of the provisions of this Act, instruct the postmaster at any post office at which mail is received addressed to such person or concern to return to the postmaster at the office at which they were originally mailed all letters or other matter so addressed, with the words 'mail to this address undeliverable under Espionage Act' plainly written or stamped upon the outside thereof, and all such letters or other matter so returned to such postmasters shall be by them returned to the senders thereof under such regulations as the Postmaster General may prescribe.

Approved, May 16, 1918 .


The Sedition Act targeted all forms of criticism of the government, military, or U.S. participation in the war. Both the federal and state anti-sedition statutes were used to arrest, try, and imprison pacifists, Socialists, and German-Americans. In Montana, 79 persons—more than half of whom were born in Europe—were convicted of sedition, often for casual remarks made in saloons. One man received a seven-and-one-half to twenty-year jail sentence for saying that wartime food regulations were, in his words, "a joke." All were pardoned posthumously by the governor of Montana in 2006.

Over 2,000 prosecutions were based on the federal Espionage and Sedition Acts during World War I, most of leftists. About 900 of those accused spent time in jail. Two months after the Espionage Act was passed, Charles Schenck, a Socialist, was arrested in Philadelphia for handing out leaflets criticizing the draft and American involvement in the war. Schenck's pamphlet asserted that the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits "involuntary servitude," made the draft unconstitutional. He also recommended peaceful acts of resistance, such as the signing of petitions. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to six months in jail. He appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction in Schenck v. United States (March 3, 1919). It was in arguing this case that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes first made the oft-cited argument that the First Amendment does not protect "shouting fire in a [crowded] theatre." U.S. historian Howard Zinn replies that although "Holmes's analogy was clever and attractive…a more apt analogy for Schenck was someone getting up between the acts at a theater and declaring that there are not enough fire exits." Or, Zinn suggests, "someone shouting, not falsely, but truly, to people about to buy tickets and enter a theater, that there was a fire raging inside."

Another famous arrest under the Sedition Act was that of Eugene Debs (1855–1926), a Socialist and labor leader who ran for President five times. Debs was arrested for saying that "Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder.… And that is war in a nutshell." Since there were young men of draft age in the audience, his words were deemed seditious. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 1919 and Debs spent thirty-two months in jail. The remainder of his sentence was commuted when the Sedition Act and parts of the Espionage Act were repealed in 1921. However, much of the Espionage Act remains U.S. law. President John F. Kennedy sought (unsuccessfully) in 1963 to apply it to journalists in Vietnam writing articles that were critical of the U.S.-supported Diem regime and were, in the President's opinion, 'likely to impede the war effort."

The Sedition Act of 1918 was not the first Sedition Act in U.S. history. Almost a century earlier, the Sedition Act of 1798 made it illegal to criticize Congress or the President. The Sedition Act of 1798 has never been repealed, but most legal experts agree that it would not withstand a challenge on First Amendment grounds today. However, U.S. courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have traditionally been compliant with government desires during wartime, even when those desires openly violate the Constitution. During World War II, for example, the internment in prison camps of 110,000 Japanese-American U.S. citizens who had been accused of no crime was upheld by the Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States (1944). Today, this decision is viewed by most legal scholars as a violation of basic Constitutional rights.

During the first year of the Iraq war (2003–), a number of right-wing commentators called for the imprisonment of war critics. For example, best-selling right-wing columnist Ann Coulter (1961–) wrote in 2003, "Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy." She also applied the word "treason" to left and liberal criticism of U.S. actions in Iraq. (Treason is a more serious crime than sedition, punishable by death under U.S. federal law.) Even victory cabbage is not necessarily a thing of the past; during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when France was failing to support U.S. calls for a war, two Republican members of Congress ordered all congressional cafeterias and snack shops to stop selling French fries and French toast and begin selling Freedom fries and Freedom toast instead.



Stone, Geoffrey R. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.


Douglass, Matt. "Mont. Governor Pardons 78 in Sedition Case." Washington Post (May 4, 2006).

Liptak, Adam. "Sedition: It Still Rolls Off the Tongue." New York Times (May 7, 2006).