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Essay: Freedom of Expression during World War I

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  • Freedom of Expression during World War I
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Soon after the United States formally joined World War I, the government passed the Espionage Act which stated that whoever, in time of war, shall wilfully cause insubordination or disloyalty would be punished by a fine of $10,000, or imprisonment, or both. A year later, the Sedition Act of 1918 specified that it would be illegal to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States.” More than 20,000 people were arrested for violating the acts and almost 1,000 were convicted. The official intention of the Espionage and Sedition Acts was to prevent obstruction of the war effort, but they were abused by the government to fulfil a political agenda against immigrants and socialists and, indirectly, violate free press and the freedom of speech.

Before 1917, most Americans hoped to stay out of the war being fought across the Atlantic Ocean. While World War I was raging in Europe, Americans in 30 states re-elected Woodrow Wilson largely because “he kept us out of war.” Prominent isolationists, including Hull House founder Jane Addams, Columbia University president David Starr Jordan, women’s suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt and automobile mogul Henry Ford, vocally objected to U.S. involvement, as did socialists and pacifists. Therefore, when the United States finally decided to enter the war in April 1917, the government had to persuade all Americans that the Congress had made the right decision and, more importantly, to make sure that people who continued to object to the war did not obstruct U.S. war efforts. This was accomplished through the passage of the Espionage Act in June 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918.

The Acts were intended to silence all critics of the war but they became a convenient tool to deal with pre-war issues of immigration and labor issues. In the years leading to World War I, America had experienced a huge surge in immigration. By 1914, more than a third of U.S. citizens had been born abroad. Some of these immigrants, like the Irish, Germans and Italians, were sympathetic to the Central Powers at the beginning of the war. Many had also joined domestic socialist organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and participated in strikes. The presence of so many aliens in the United States caused a surge of xenophobia that rose to the top of the U.S. government. President Woodrow Wilson in his State of the Union address on December 7, 1915 claimed that the “citizens of the United States…born under other flags… poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” He warned that these immigrants “debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue.” The accusations were exaggerated but he urged the Congress to enact laws to crush the “disloyal,” “anarchic,” and “infinitely malignant” “creatures of passion.” America’s entry into World War I provided the urgency that was needed to move forward with the legislation.

Following the lead of Woodrow Wilson, the Espionage Act of June 1917, issued to prevent disloyalty in time of war, disproportionately targeted foreigners, socialists and labor unions. To Wilson and many Americans, there was a very thin line between enemy alien agents and radical labor organizations. The most dangerous group, they believed, was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an inclusive labor union formed in 1905 that attracted low wage immigrant workers and supported socialism. In 1916, the leaders of the IWW, like much of the country, condemned war. They further called for “class solidarity among the workers of the entire world” and promoted a general strike in all industries to prevent capitalists from battling each other. A year later, the union became the first victim of what Attorney General Thomas Gregory called the “hysteria” that developed around the Espionage Act. In July, 1917, a month after the Act was passed, the IWW sponsored a labor strike in Bisbee, Arizona. Soon after the strike was called, rumors circulated that it had been infiltrated by pro-Germans prompting the Los Angeles Times to warn that “on our soil is an enemy…preaching revolution and invoking anarchy…the IWW… is filled with foreigners, officered by convicts, and is attempting vaguely to guise its sabotage behind the specious title of Industrial Workers of the World.” No German spies were found but more than 1,000 laborers were deported to Mexico. Another attack on the union took place on September 5, 1917 when national and local law enforcement agents raided every IWW office in the United States as well as the homes of leading members. The documents they found were used to prosecute more than 100 IWW leaders on Espionage Act charges of “conspiring to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes.” The arrests were justified by claiming that the IWW leader intended to “keep the soldiers so busy … that they will have no time to fight Germany.” The raids on the IWW heightened fears that there were enemies living among patriotic Americans prompting the Congress to pass the more restrictive Sedition Act of 1918 and tightening control on the media.

Defying the President’s wish to silence all critics of the war, the Congress voted not to include a clause that limited freedom of the press. Soon after war was declared, Woodrow Wilson proposed three sections for the Espionage Act: disaffection, non-mailability and press censorship. The disaffection portion would prohibit anyone from making false reports or causing “disaffection” within the military. Title XII Section V of the “nonmailability” portion of the Espionage Act, gave the postmaster general the authority to stop mail from being delivered if it violated the Espionage Act. Press censorship, which Wilson heavily supported, was more problematic. “The authority to exercise censorship over the press,” Wilson claimed, “is absolutely necessary to the public safety.” Some Congressmen, like Edwin Webb, agreed with Wilson claiming that “people were giving up money and their sons, so the press should give up its right to free speech.” Most representatives, though, objected to the unconstitutionality of such a restriction. Representative Martin B. Madden, for example, pointed out that “while we are fighting to establish the democracy of the world, we ought not to do the thing that will establish autocracy in America.” The Espionage Act passed in June 1917 without the press censorship clause but the application of the act went far beyond constitutional restrictions as feared.
Although press censorship was not explicitly included in the Espionage and Sedition Acts, the government was able to monitor and control the press through the “non-mailability” section of the laws which gave Postmaster General, Albert S. Burleson, the immense authority to block the mailing of all letters, newspapers or pamphlets that he deemed violated the acts. “The instant you print anything calculated to dishearten the boys in the army or make them think this is not a just or righteous war,” said Burleson, “that instant you will be suppressed and no amount of influence will save you.” Under Burleson’s direction, over 75 newspapers either lost their mailing privileges or agreed to abide by de facto censorship rules. German-language newspapers, like Arbeiter Zeitung were banned from the mails, as were publications by pacifists who didn’t wholeheartedly support the war. Even slight criticisms from mainstream newspapers, like questioning the mass arrest of 75,000 draft dodgers, could cause an issue to be banned. The most aggressive target of Burleson’s restrictions, though, were socialist newspapers like Max Eastman’s The Masses, Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth , The American Socialist, The Masses, and Victor Berger’s Milwaukee Leader. The attack on Socialists during the war went far beyond censorship of magazines and newspapers.

The “non-mailability” clause of the Espionage Act was also invoked to silence free speech by individuals who used the mails to express their views about the war but the law disproportionately targeted socialists. The most notorious example was the arrest of Charles T. Schenk, the secretary of the Socialist Party, who had printed and distributed 15,000 leaflets calling for men who had been drafted to resist military service. “Wake Up America!” Shenck wrote, “Your Liberties are in Danger!” He then explained that the draft violated the 13th Amendment because it unlawfully forced men into “involuntary servitude.” Schenk was arrested on three counts: conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act, conspiracy to commit an offence against the United States and unlawfully using the mails for the transmission of matter that was considered “non-mailable” by Title XII, § 2 of the Act. Schenck’s attorney argued that “the right of free speech…gives the right to persuade another to violate a law, since, legally, it is actually the one who violates the law who should be punished.” But the court disagreed. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that the risks associated with the distribution of Schenck’s leaflets was comparable to falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater and therefore created a “clear and present danger.”

Yet another politically-motivated application of the Espionage and Sedition Acts was the arrest and imprisonment of one of the founding members of the IWW and five-time candidate for president, Eugene V. Debs. In a speech in Canton, Ohio in June 1918 Debs argued that “If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose ….have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.” Two weeks later, Debs was arrested and sentenced to prison for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts because, the court said, his speech was “calculated to promote insubordination” and obstruct the draft. Other non-socialist critics of the war like Jane Addams, who in May 1917 asked if the “United States owes too much to all the nations of the earth… to allow the women and children of any of them to starve,” Henry Ford, who had financed a diplomatic peace mission to Europe, University of Chicago Dean Robert M. Lovett and pacifist Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones were never arrested.

In total, 900 individuals were convicted and 249 immigrants were deported without a trial because of the Espionage and Sedition Acts. The purpose of the Espionage and Sedition Acts was to root out spies and prevent speech that could cause disloyalty and interfere with the war. In truth, however, the Acts disproportionately targeted left wing radical groups, labor leaders and immigrants.. The IWW, which had reached its peak by the summer of 1917, was in disarray after the war because it was forced to devote time and resources to hiring attorneys to bail out members. The Socialist party saw a sharp drop in membership from 82,344 members in 1918 to 34,926 in 1919. Perhaps the most striking evidence that the Espionage and Sedition Acts were biased against socialists was the fact that it continued to be invoked after the war war over in the 1919-1920 Red Scare. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer used the Acts to deport hundreds of left wing immigrants with the intention of eradicating socialism from the United States. The Espionage and Sedition Acts went far beyond their intended use. They were invoked to get rid of troublesome labor groups and silence specific individuals, even after the war was over, and gave the government a convenient tool to silence free speech and the press.

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