Civil Rights and the Passing of the Espionage & Sedition Acts


America’s entrance into World War 1 would require widespread national support. Pro-war propaganda telling men to join the army and encouraging citizens to buy war bonds were everywhere. Families pledged to eat less of certain foods in order to feed soldiers and an increase in the production of industrial goods also supported the war effort. While support for the war was encouraged, not supporting it or the U.S. were punishable. The civil rights of many were threatened during this time, including the freedom to oppose the war which was prohibited by the passing of two controversial laws: the Espionage and Sedition Acts. The Espionage Act banned helping the enemy or disrupting the United States’ war effort. The Sedition Act made saying or writing anything negative about the U.S., the war, or the government illegal. The Espionage and Sedition Acts were controversial because they restricted free speech, but were put in place to ensure national security. I personally believe these laws went too far when it comes to the right to free speech.

These laws were challenged as unconstitutional in the Supreme Court, but were ruled as not a violation of the first amendment. In order to win the war, citizens needed to support it. The Espionage and Sedition Acts prevented people who did not support the war or the U.S. from expressing their opinions. Labor leaders, pacifists and other non-supporters could no longer speak out or write about their thoughts on the subject, which seems to be a direct violation of the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. The first amendment gives us the right to freedom of expression including the freedom of speech and press. One famous Supreme Court case was Schenck v. United States which concluded that these laws did not violate first amendment rights. Many people ended up being prosecuted for violations of these laws and the penalties were harsh.

I see the need for some of the things these acts outlawed and it is easy to see why extreme actions such as spying or sharing information with the enemy would be punishable. There was a real national security threat and messing with the draft or production of goods should not have been allowed. However, freedom of speech and expression should not have been as restricted as it was because everyone has a right to their opinion. I believe that even though a major war was going on, that some things that the Espionage and Sedition Acts prohibited were unjustified. Citizens should have been able to speak their opinion if they didn’t support the war effort and wanted the U.S. to remain neutral.  I also do not think that someone should be sent to prison or fined for criticizing the U.S. Constitution or government. A person’s intent should also be looked at. Many people who were tried didn’t want to harm the government or U.S. in any way. Some statements that were illegal posed no real threat to national security. Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs ended up being sentenced to ten years for his words against the war. Ten years is a very long time to be sitting in a jail cell over sharing an opinion you should be able to share. Overall, I think the Espionage and Sedition Acts crossed the line when it came to freedom of speech.

Besides the civil rights issues that arose when the Espionage and Sedition Acts were passed, I feel like I should mention that there were many other issues concerning civil rights at that time. Immigrants that were of national descent from enemy nations, especially German-Americans, endured horrific treatment. Support for the Allied Nations was a must and opponents were portrayed badly. Propaganda sprang up depicting Germans in a negative light and people questioned where the German-Americans’ loyalties lay. Southern blacks also began moving north for better paying jobs and employers purposely hired them and immigrants because they were excluded from labor unions. This weakened the power of unions because it wouldn’t be as detrimental to the company if they went on strike since their black and immigrant employees were not members of the union. Angry white workers began attacking blacks and racial riots resulted. There was also the struggle for women to attain voting rights during this period. Although there are still civil rights issues today, I am thankful for all the progress we have made.

6 thoughts on “Civil Rights and the Passing of the Espionage & Sedition Acts

  1. I agree that the Espionage and Sedition Acts did cross a boundary when it comes to freedom of speech. I also wonder why the government felt it necessary to pass these acts. I think that in order to change and grow, there needs to be discussion. Discussion can’t really happen when there are laws prohibiting someone having an opposing opinion to the U.S., war, etc.

  2. I definitely agree with the comment above. When the two acts were passed it did cross a boundary and take the freedom of speech away from Americans. But with everyone arguing and disagreeing on war and many other things it is hard to find a common ground. You can’t half way be involved in a war. It is a very difficult thing.

  3. I definitely agree that the Espionage and Sedition Acts were a bit too much. During this time though that was putting a restriction on freedom of speech. Not everyone is always going to agree with each other. Telling people they cannot voice their opinion because it is “wrong” is wrong especially today. There are people today who voice their opinion when they should just keep their mouth shut. With the Espionage Act in place and someone were to speak about their disapproval of war, they would be in big trouble. If someone today said something to offend someone else of disagreed with the way things were run it would just get blown off. I do understand the part where families pledge less to eat to feed the soldiers, when you think about it during that time soldiers needed all the food they could get to keep them healthy. Since there was not any antibiotics or vaccinations meaning when a soldier is ill he more than likely will not get better due to the circumstances he is under. These acts do put a strain on the first amendment and would not be put into place today.

  4. I do believe that these acts may have been a little extreme but at the time they may have very well been needed. It is very hard to enter a war that your citizens do not support! You really have to be all in when it come to a world conflict like this, there is no halfway and the government most likely understood that. There was no room for opposition to a war of this scale.

  5. We still today portray immigrants and even legal citizens of the United States of current enemy nations differently than we do people of other nationalities. Glad that you added that bit of information into your blog post.

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