file 20210512 24 1b89lotEugene Debs, at center with flowers, who was serving a prison sentence for violating the Espionage Act, on the day he was notified of his nomination for the presidency on the socialist ticket by a delegation of leading socialists.

Free speech wasn’t so free 103 years ago, when ‘seditious’ and ‘unpatriotic’ speech was criminalized in the US 

By Eric P. Robinson
via The Conversation web site

Just over a century ago, the United States government – in the midst of World War I – undertook unprecedented efforts to control and restrict what it saw as “unpatriotic” speech through passage of the Sedition Act of 1918, signed by President Woodrow Wilson on May 16 of that year.

The restrictions – and the courts’ reactions to them – mark an important landmark in testing the limits of the First Amendment, and the beginnings of the current understanding of free speech in the U.S.

As a scholar and lawyer focused on freedom of speech in the U.S., I have studied the federal government’s attempts to restrict speech, including during World War I, and the legal cases that challenged them. These cases helped form the modern idea of the First Amendment right of free speech. But the conflict between patriotism and free expression continues to be an issue a century later.

Government’s pursuit of ‘radicals’

The onset of war led to a patriotic fervor, fed by an intense government propaganda campaign. It also led to new challenges to the concept of free speech.

Within a few weeks of declaring war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act.

This law, which is still largely in effect, makes it a crime to do three things. First, to convey false information in order to interfere with the American military, or promote the success of America’s enemies. Second, to cause or attempt to cause insubordination within the military. Third, to willfully obstruct military recruitment or enlistment.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations used this law to investigate unauthorized leaks of government information, including obtaining reporters’ phone records.

The more restrictive Sedition Act of 1918 went further, amending the Espionage Act to criminalize “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive” speech about the United States or its symbols; speech to impede war production; and statements supporting a country with which the U.S. is at war. 

Read the entire article on The Conversation web site.

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