The Espionage Act And The Sedition Act

2435 words - 10 pages

During World War I, congress would authorize two controversial pieces of legislation: the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition act of 1918. The Espionage Act was ratified in order to “suppress the spread of alleged disloyalty and to maintain the public image of remarkable national unity behind the war effort” (James and Wells, 71). The act inhibited the freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and some of which seems the antithesis of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Most of the Espionage Act would be in effect only during times of war, but two of the provisions stayed in effect during times of peace.
In times of peace (and war), the Espionage Act granted the “issue of search warrants for the seizure of property used as a means of committing a felony” (“Treason”, 223). Additionally, it took measures against sending purported illegal materials through the mail: a task overseen by the Post Master General.
There were various fines and jail times depending on the infraction committed under the Espionage Act. The fine for sending undeliverable mail was a $5,000 fee, five years in prison, or possibly both (“Treason”, 223). Those convicted of violating the Espionage Act would face “sentences of up to twenty years and fines of $10,000” (James and Wells, 71).
Dissatisfied with the scope of the Espionage Act, Congress was compelled to add an amendment to further penalize “crimes of disloyalty” against the United States (James and Wells, 71). Congress enacted an amendment that would be known as the Sedition Act which broadened the scope of what would be considered disloyal to the United States.
After the war, there would at least one bill presented sanctioning more of the Espionage Act to be enacted during times of peace, but none was passed. Many lawsuits were filed over this legislation. Trying to define what was and wasn’t dissent or disloyal speech varied from state to state and many cases also landed in the Supreme Courts lap.
Much of the Espionage Act still is in implementation, but the Sedition Act was repealed. There is much to be said on this act being unconstitutional and the Constitution makes it very clear that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (US Const., amend. I). Still, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the Espionage Act during times of “clear and present danger”: In times of war, your freedom of speech can be limited (James and Wells, 71). Yet, it seems like not much has changed. Even in modern times, during war there is still a push to put into effect acts that erode our civil rights. In 1819 it was the Espionage and Sedition Acts; in modern times it is the Patriot Act.

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