Free Speech During WWI

World War I began in 1914 when the Germans invaded France.  When they crossed through Belgium, Great Britain declared war against Germany to honor an agreement to protect Belgium sovereignty.  Soon the other European Nations including Austria-Hungary, and Russia joined the fray.

The United States initially believed it would be best to stay neutral.  Between 1914-1917  German spies spent $12 million dollars to support rebel factions in Mexico against the United States.  It wasn’t until two years lasted events such as the sinking of the Lusitania by a German u boat, which resulted in the death of 128 Americans, and the Zimmerman Telegram convinced the United States to join the Allies.

World War I was a “total war” which meant that the United States would have to use all of their financial, industrial, and human resources if they were going to have a chance to win.  Once the fighting began and saboteurs began to infiltrate the United States and blowing up munitions factories and ships caring ammo.  In 1916 sabatours blew  up Black Tom, a munitions factory in New Jersey.  The explosion shattered thousands of windows in Manhattan, the shrapnel blew holes in the Statue of Liberty.

The Espionage Act of 1917 made it illegal to obstruct military recruitment, encourage mutiny, or aid the enemy by spreading lies.  In 1918 the Sedition Act outlawed speaking, writing, or publishing “any abusive or disloyal language” towards the flag, constitution, government, or armed forces.  Civil liberty activists challenged the acts, but the were upheld by the supreme court.  The laws helped silence people who opposed the war, including pacifists and members of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World.

Leader of the Socialist Party Eugene Debs was sentence to 10 years in prison by a Federal judge for saying “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.”  During the war many German American’s changed their names and bought war bonds to protect themselves from suspicion.

Its kind of scary to think that the government could arrest people  for is agreeing with thew war.  Given the stakes of the war and issues with saboteurs and spies I can see why many people would believe such laws to be necessary.  To a certain extent I think we saw that after 9/11 with the NSA and surveillance in the United States.


14 thoughts on “Free Speech During WWI

  1. Your paragraph about the Sedition Act of 1917 was very detailed and I think that will open the eyes of a lot of people in our class that maybe did not fully understand what that act was saying. They were not trying to take away the freedom of speech from the people, they were simply trying to take away the foul language being used about the United States as a whole. With the country at war outside of America, they did not need those within the country fighting as well. The government saw that Americans being strong and supportive at home was better for them than if everyone was fighting inside of the country with the government.

    1. I agree! This really opened my eyes to what was actually going on. They weren’t trying to take away freedom of speech they simply wanted to take away foul language and clean up the United States. Since the United States was already at war they didn’t want the people fighting within the country as well. I think this makes perfect sense and the act was created for a good cause. This really opened my eyes and helped show me what was actually going on in the United States.

  2. I have always though America has always been about protecting our rights. I am sure that out first being freedom of speech was not first on accident. I believe freedom of speech is the most important freedom and nothing should infringe on it. Seeing how people were being sent to jail for speaking just surprises me. Though I may disagree with people that speak hateful things of America, they do have the right to. Also they should realize how being in America also gives them that right.

    1. I agree. I do not think the freedom of speech should ever be taken away from anyone no matter what. People have a basic human right to state their opinions and ideas and they should not be punished for that under any circumstance. People deserve to say what is on their mind.

  3. I’m shocked that German spies spent $12 million. That was probably an unfathomable amount for that time period. I definitely think those who were blowing up ammunition factories were committing treason. I think it was unfair for those opposed to be silenced because in America that is a right. That being said, it would make sense if they were threatening to act out as it or interfere or cause harm.

  4. I agree with your last paragraph and I also think it’s pretty scary that the government was arresting those for speaking out. I like how you connected the laws with those of more recent events such as 9-11. Unfortunately, those who cause bad things to happen force everybody to be under the same regulations and those standards keep lowering and lowering until they get to an all time low, such as arresting people for speaking up about their opinion.

  5. One inaccuracy I just need to point out though is that WWI began with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire declaring war against and invading Serbia, Germany being called in as an ally on Austria’s side, and Russia being called in to defend Serbia. France was dragged in afterwards. Germany invading France although it was a major aspect of the war and did lead to Great Britain to join, it was not what started the war. (Sorry I’m a history buff so that just bothered me). Anyways onto the real main point of the post, it is not only terrifying that these policies were passed by the US government but even upheld at the supreme court. The worst part was that the US was not in the war for very long, only a single year (1917 to 1918) and yet in this little time so many policies were put in place that silenced nay and all criticism.

  6. Imagine today if we were to get 10 years in prison for speaking our mind about war. I’m sure the jail and prisons would be full! Although the laws made were with good intentions and wanted to protect us from danger, they violated our rights. If this situation is to arise again in the future, would they be allowed to make similar laws that violates our amendments? Very interesting to think about!

    1. It’s interesting to think about these laws applied to today’s terms. The US today prides itself on the freedoms that its citizens have, so it would be crazy to see some sort of law passed that infringes on the amendments. I wonder if history would repeat itself and there would be attacks on certain groups or havoc breaking loose. I agree that it’s very interesting to think about the Acts passed and how they would affect our daily lives as Americans.

    2. I agree with you that the laws were made with good intentions. The Espionage Act and the Sedition Act was created to strengthen national security and to prevent German spies from speaking about the war although it seemed to be a violation of freedom of speech for Americans.

  7. I agree with you it’s scary what the government did. I think that if people opposed the war, they have the right to express their opinions.

  8. At the time I believe it was almost completely motivated by the social worries within the U.S.
    That is what cause such a drastic measure for the restrictions on speech and point of views.

  9. I agree with your last paragraph that stated that given the stakes of the war and spies such laws may have been necessary. You were accurate in relating that to the events of 9/11. Do we need to give up our right of privacy to be safe?

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