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