Published: 18-10-2011, 09:09

Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-1918

The Law: Federal legislation that made it illegal to speak out against the government during World War I

Dates: Espionage Act enacted on June 15, 1917; Sedition Act enacted on May 16, 1918

Significance: Enacted soon after the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Espionage Act prohibited individuals from expressing or publishing opinions that would interfere with the U.S. military’s efforts to defeat Germany and its allies. A year later, the U.S. Congress amended the law with the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it illegal to write or speak anything critical of American involvement in the war.

While the Espionage Act dealt with many uncontroversial issues such as punishing acts of spying and sabotage and protecting shipping, the act, as amended by the Sedition Act, was extremely controversial for many immigrants who were opposed to war, the military draft, and violations of their free speech rights. Specifically, the Espionage Act made it a crime willfully to interfere with U.S. war efforts by conveying false information about the war, obstructing U.S. recruitment or enlistment efforts, or inciting insubordination, disloyalty, ormutiny.

The Sedition Act made the language of the Espionage Act more specific by making it illegal to use disloyal, profane, or abusive language to criticize the U.S. Constitution, the government, the military, the flag, or the uniform. The government had the authority to punish a wide range of speech and activities such as obstructing the sale of U.S. bonds, displaying a German flag, or giving a speech that supported the enemy’s cause. Persons convicted of violating these laws could be fined amounts of up to ten thousand dollars and also be sentenced to prison for as long as twenty years.

Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, the U.S. postmaster general had the authority to ban the mailing of all letters, circulars, newspapers,pamphlets, packages, and other materials that opposed the war. As a result, about seventy-five newspapers either lost their mailing privileges or were pressured to print nothing more about the war. These publications included German American or German- language newspapers, pacifist publications, and publications owned by the American Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World.

No one was convicted of spying or sabotage under the Espionage Act during World War I. However, more than two thousand people were arrested for sedition. One thousand of them— including many immigrants—were convicted. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, ruling that the government had the authority to punish speech that would create a “clear and present danger.”

The Espionage Act was intended to be in effect only during wartime, but the law continued to be invoked following the end of World War I during the Red Scare of 1919-1920 and again after World War II during the Cold War. The Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, but major portions of the Espionage Act remained in effect as part of U.S. law.

Eddith A. Dashiell

Further Reading

  • Kohn, Stephen M. American Political Prisoners: Prosecutions Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts.Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994. 
  • Manz, William H., ed. Civil Liberties in Wartime: Legislative Histories of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. Buffalo, N.Y: W. S. Hein, 2007. 
  • 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. 

See also: Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; Constitution, U.S.; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1903; Immigration Act of 1917; Loyalty oaths; Red Scare; World War I.