The Restriction of Speech with Espionage and Sedition Acts

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The Espionage Act was passed on June 15th, 1917 and the Sedition Act was passed on May 16th, 1918. The Espionage and Sedition Act prohibited those that were trying to avoid the draft, those that were guilty of evading the draft in which they had to abide under the law, they could face fines and serious time in jail. The Espionage and Sedition Acts were used by the government for a long time and most people were charged under these acts during times of war.

An example of someone who violated the Espionage and Sedition Acts and faced a lengthy prison sentence was Molly Steimer, she was born in Russia. She was a political Anarchist; she was arrested in the Abrams case; she was for handing out literature speaking out about anti-Russian intervention. She was in and out of prison for years. Eventually she was deported during the red scare back to Russia, she ended up living in Mexico. I thought her story was interesting because it highlighted how severe the punishments were if people went against the Espionage and Sedition Acts and if they were from another country, they were more likely to be deported, she was sentenced to prison for fifteen years and had to pay a five hundred dollar fine. This happened a lot during the red scare.ii

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The Espionage and Sedition acts prohibited people from speaking ill about the war and the government. Immigrants were often targeted the most under these acts. Immigrants that had just moved to America quite possibly to avoid the war didn’t want to be forced to participate. Wilson who was president of the United States was a well-known advocate for keeping the US out of the war, and had the US remain neutral. As time went on Germany was attacking US ships that were delivering supplies and goods to Great Britain and to other places that they traded within Europe. Most of the traded goods went to allied powers, meaning enemies of Germany. And Germany didn’t take this well. Germany kept attacking American vessels and other allied powers boats. Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare. The sinking of the Lusitania caused up roar across the country, there were American passengers that had perished during the attack on the Lusitania. This however wasn’t enough to make Wilson declare war on Germany. That was until Great Britain had intercepted and translated this telegram it was soon published in newspapers all around the world. The US reached its boiling point there was public outcry against Germany and Woodrow Wilson said that the US couldn’t remain neutral anymore and war was inevitable. So, were the Espionage and Sedition acts a positive thing that came out during this time? Yes, they created rules for citizens to follow, and tried to keep internal peace in the country. While there was a war being fought across the world. It was easier to restrict people’s ability to speak out against the war than to allow protests. This also helped people sign up for the draft and serve the country.

The Espionage and Sedition acts weren’t around much longer after the war had ended. But they made Americans feel a little safer. There was a lot of propaganda around during this time, promoting the war, rationing, and the draft. The war was soon shed in a different light compared to recent years it was made to look like it was a good thing that we are going to war we are being patriotic if we fight for our country and those that disagree will be convicted. Emma Goldman immigrated to the United States in 1885, while working in factories she came across socialist and anarchist groups, soon she began following these groups. Emma spoke out about issues that affected the country; she delivered a speech discussing reasons not to sign up for the draft. This speech attracted eight thousand people and she was arrested. She was sentenced to prison for two years. She attempted to appeal her sentence but was unsuccessful. She also created a magazine that she used as her forum to discuss politics and her disagreements about the US entering the war. Mother Earth, was the name of her magazine, which was banned from publication because it didn’t follow the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts it gave US postal officials the right to ban the circulation of anti-war magazines, papers, or magazines in German. This promoted keeping internal peace. I think that Wilson’s mindset was there couldn’t be any outside influences that could affect people’s mentality about going to war. Wilson had lots of propaganda posted everywhere. Most of it was encouraging people to sign up for the draft or ration their food to help the troops. Another group that was targeted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts was the watch tower bible and tract society, also known as Jehovah’s Witness. Why were they targeted? I wondered that myself at first as well, apparently during wartime Jehovah’s witnesses refuse to engage in war at all. This caused issues with the draft and it cases were taken to court but ruled in favor of the Jehovah’s witnesses.

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