A Dark Day 94 Years Ago for Free Speech — With a SIlver Lining

On May 16, 1918, Congress approved the Sedition Act. The law was an expansion of the previous year’s Espionage Act, which allowed the Postmaster General to remove seditious or treasonable material from the mail and punished anyone convicted of interfering with military recruitment with up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.

The Sedition Act added the same penalty to anyone who publicly criticized the government:

“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 incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct …the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, or …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 shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully …urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production …or 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 imprisonment for not more than 20 years, or both….” (Emphasis added.)

There were over 2,000 prosecutions under the law, which was repealed in 1921 along with the Espionage Act.

The best-known prosecution was that of Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist, four-time candidate for president, and opponent of the draft.  

 In June 1918, a month after the Sedition Act passed, Debs was arrested after delivering an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio.

Tried, sentenced to 10 years in prison and stripped of his citizenship, Debs appealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction saying he had ac He was promptly arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He appealed the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction because his actions had the “intention and effect of obstructing the draft and recruitment for the war.”

Debs entered prison in April 1919 and conducted his 1920 presidential campaign from behind bars, garnering nearly 920,000 votes – about 3.5 percent of the electorate. That was the highest vote total of any Socialist candidate for president.President Warren Harding commuted his sentence in 1921 after the two laws were repealed.

But Debs never regained his health after the confinement and died in October 1926 at the age of 71.

References to Debs, who was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, appeared frequently in the works of fellow Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut was fond of this Debs quote:

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”



Filed under: California History

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