The Espionage Act of 1917

Many United States citizens were denied civil rights during World War 1. One thing that denied these civil rights was the Espionage Act of 1917. This was then followed up by the Sedition Act of 1918. The Espionage Act was passed by congress on June 15, 1917, quickly after the U.S. got involved in WWI. The act was created by A. Mitchell Palmer, who was the United States attorney general. The act was intended to prohibit interference in military operations and recruitment. This was set in place in order to prevent military insubordination and support from U.S. enemies during war. Anyone who interfered with this law would be charged a fine of $10,000 and 20 years of prison. Some disagree with this act stating that it takes away people’s God-given right of Freedom of Speech. But, others say that enforcing this act protected the military and the U.S. in a time of war and great chaos.

The Sedition Act of 1918

A year later, the Espionage Act was followed by the Sedition Act of 1918. The Sedition Act was passed on May 16, 1918, and was orchestrated by A. Mitchell Palmer. The act was put in place to prohibit people from insulting the United States government, flag, constitution, or interfering with the military or war materials. If a person was found guilty of any of these activities was charged with the max of 20 years in prison and $10,000. This was the same penalty if found guilty under the Espionage Act which was passed just a year earlier. The Sedition Act was put in place to decrease chaos and revolt during time of war. Along with the Espionage Act people believed that the Sedition Act also took away citizen’s right of Freedom of Speech. Was national security worth taking away citizen’s natural, God-given rights?


Court Cases involving these acts

Schenck v. United States

This case was ruled by the Supreme Court on March 3, 1919, and dealt with the Freedom of Speech. Charles T. Schenck was the general secretary of the U.S. Socialist Party, who opposed the military draft. The party printed off pamphlets that called for men who were drafted to resist military service. In doing this Schenck was charged for violating the Espionage Act and was sentenced to 30 years in prison after being charged for three accounts. The court case was held on January 9, 1919, when Schenck argued that the Espionage Act was unconstitutional. Later on March 3, 1919, the Supreme Court decided to uphold the Espionage Act and Schenck’s charges.

Abrams v. United States

In August, 1918, a group of Russian immigrants in New York was charged for violating the Sedition Act. This was due to their distribution of pamphlets that included information about the U.S. deployment of troops in Russia and advocating riots for factories producing military goods. Months later the group was charged with 15 to 20 years in prison. In March, 1919, the group fought their conviction pleading that the act conflicted with their first amendment, Freedom of Speech. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled the group innocent and the case was closed.

Overall, this time period in history was a time of great chaos for the U.S. and the world in general, for the first world war was taking part. For the U.S. stated that they were in the “war to make the world safe for democracy”, but yet we see the United States put in place some of the harshest laws in U.S. history. These laws even took away a God-given right that the United States was constructed on. Do you think the United States government is justified for protecting national security, or did these act take away too many rights?