Civil Rights

The civil rights were a broad range of privileges and rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and later amendments and laws ensured fundamental freedoms to all individuals. These freedoms included the rights of free expression and action along with many others. When, the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were put in place they would affect thousands.

The Espionage Act passed shortly after the U.S. entered into the war in early April 1917. The Espionage Act was part of Wilson’s array of legislations that made it a crime to obstruct military recruitment, to encourage mutiny, or to aid the enemy by spreading lies. Enforced largely by A. Mitchell Palmer, the United States attorney general under President Woodrow Wilson, the Espionage Act essentially made it a crime for any person to convey information intended to interfere with the U.S. armed forces prosecution of the war effort or to promote the success of the country’s enemies. Aimed at socialists, pacifists and other anti-war activists anyone found guilty of such acts would be subject to fine up to $10,000 and/or a prison sentence of 10 or 20 years. This Act would be amended in May 1918.

The most unforgettable provisions of the Espionage Act, was on May 16, 1918, when the United States Congress passed the Sedition Act. The Sedition Act of 1918, was Legislation that went even further than the Espionage Act by prohibiting anyone from uttering, writing, or publishing “any abusive or disloyal language” concerning the flag, Constitution, government, or armed forces. Along with the Espionage Act of the previous year, the Sedition Act was organized largely by A. Mitchell Palmer.  Also, aimed at socialists, pacifists and other anti-war activists, the Sedition Act also imposed harsh penalties on anyone found guilty. Those who were found guilty would be punished. The punishment was the same penalty that had been imposed for the Espionage Act.

One of the most famous prosecutions under the Sedition Act during World War I was that of Eugene V. Debs, a pacifist labor organizer and founder of the International Workers of the World (IWW). After delivering an anti-war speech in June 1918 in Canton, Ohio, Debs was arrested, tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison under the Sedition Act. Debs appealed the decision, and the case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court ruled Debs had acted with the intention of obstructing the war effort and upheld his conviction. Debs’ sentence was commuted in 1921 when the Sedition Act was repealed by Congress. Major portions of the Espionage Act remain part of United States law to the present day.

During World War I, The Wilson Administration made abundant use of these Acts, prosecuting over 2,000 rebels for opposing the war or the draft, and most judges were quick to hand out severe punishment — often 10 to 20 years in prison — to those deemed disloyal. Although the Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, the original Espionage Act, as amended, remains part of federal law.


Works Cited

Keene, Jennifer D., et al. Visions of America: a history of the United States. Pearson, 2017



17 thoughts on “Civil Rights

  1. Both of these acts that were passed during war time were a little unfair in my opinion, I think that many people were punished for unclear laws an reasons depending on how the acts were interpreted. Although the U.S. was trying to gain American’s support for the war, the acts were over used and they took away an American’s freedom. I agree with your point that the Wilson Administration overused the powers of these acts and sentenced many people to fines or jail time because of it.

    1. Yes, I think both acts were more than a little unfair. How do you give someone the freedom of speech, and then go and make acts that limit what you can say about certain subjects. Then if you do talk about those certain subjects you could get prison time, and/or a fine. How unfair!

      1. Yes these acts were very unfair. You grant people freedom of speech and turn around and say only towards certain subjects is absolutely insane. Espionage Act was one of the most controversial laws ever passed in the United States.

      2. I agree if our government is considered to be a democracy then I dont understand why they tried to limit the statements of our citizens. Its not fair to those individuals who want to exercise the freedom of speech.

    2. They were defiantly unfair and were not made clear at all, its a wonder how these laws ever got put into place. I’m sure they put it place for good acts and completely misused in most cases during this time.

  2. These acts were very unfair. I couldn’t imagine being imprisoned for 20 years for my opinion. That’s more than some murderers get in jail. It is ridiculous. How can you say we have freedom of speech and then put them in jail for using it?

  3. If people were resisting these acts its because they did not want to go to another war. WW1 was the second deadliest war and the American people were trying to avoid that. I can’t believe that you would go to jail just for resisting war.

    1. Yes! It was very unfair of them throwing people in jail over not wanting to go to war, but the government wanted the war and did not want people throwing a resistance about them going to war, so they tried to make a point by throwing these people in jail.

    2. My point exactly they are honestly forcing thier citizens to go to war. Beyond thier approval, if yiu want to get techinal thats not how a democracy works. Thats an issue that should be discussed and voted on.

  4. I can agree with the majority of points around the initial Espionage Act. People who deliberately aid the enemy in a time of war by means of intelligence or directly undermining national security should be arrested. Disagreeing with the government or peacefully protesting during wartime and being arrested for it, however, is simply not American.

  5. I understand why America at this time decided to put in the Espionage and Sedition Act. If anyone outright or publicly violated these acts, it would have most likely scared other people around them, especially since this was a time of war. If it did not come across as taking away people’s rights, I think Americans could have been more understanding of the acts.

  6. These Acts seemed to go against everything that America was supposed to stand for. The country was built upon freedom. Free speech is something that makes America different from other countries. I understand why these acts were passed and their intent, but these steps were way too far fetched. Imprisoning someone for speaking out against war is crazy. Debs wasn’t even siding with the enemy, he was just trying to speak for peace and he was granted the exact opposite.

  7. Great blog this week, I like all the detail you put into it. Your blog gave me a sense on what went on in this era. I think it would have been really hard to live in this era. To try to say what was on your mind could put you in jail,I couldn’t imagine how it could have felt. This war was very terrifying and horrible, with many deaths. The government thought it would be a good idea for the acts to make sure there wasn’t any betrayal or interference with the war. I thought it was very unfair that the government didn’t give the people many opinions about their lives.

  8. Could you imagine if the Sedition Act was used in the last decade? Everyone who spoke on our pointless war in Iraq would be jailed. This is dangerous, and is against everything our country stands for.

  9. The whole idea of the Sedition Act and the other ones that punished you for what is defined in the Constitution as “free speech” is odd. For a country that thrives off of the principle of freedom, it seems to me as if they were do more limiting what people were allowed to do than allowing them to be more free. It was really unfair for people to be jailed for not believing in the war and people being killed so that America could be themselves.

  10. I also agree that the acts were unfair and I believe that they both violated our freedom of speech. Some of the things the government did and still do can be pretty crazy and unfair.

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