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.