The Espionage Act of 1917, passed on June 15, 1917, might very well be considered one of the most controversial laws ever passed in American history. Critics note that its harsh tone is an affront to the Constitution of the United States. Others may state that the law was necessary to safeguard the nation during the largest war humanity had ever seen at that point of time in history.
World War I and Its Impact on the United States
When Woodrow Wilson campaigned for the presidency, he ran on the platform that the United States would stay out of the affairs of Europe. In particular, the United States would not get involved with The Great War which would later become commonly known as World War I.
Several events eventually led to the United State becoming involved in World War I. A German U-boat had sunk the luxury liner Lusitania killing 128 Americans. There was also the interception of the Zimmerman letter which revealed Germany was trying to coax Mexico into invading the United States. There was also great fear that if Great Britain collapsed in the aftermath of a German victory, the economy of the United States would also collapse since Britain was indebted to the US for huge loan sums.
Woodrow Wilson won his reelection largely because he was able to keep the United States from entering World War I. So, when Wilson did find it necessary in his second term to enter the war, there were large segments of the population that do not support the war effort. In some cases, the government felt many of these groups were taking steps to undermine the war effort. To help facilitate the winning of the war, Congress would pass the Espionage Act of 1917.
The Controversial Provisions of the Act
The Espionage Act put into law a penalty of up to 20 years imprisonment for anyone convicted of interfering with military recruitment. The law also presented the penalty of levying fines of up to $10,000 for those convicted. The law also gave additional powers to the post office. Specifically, the law allowed the Postmaster General to confiscate any mail that might be deemed seditious or treasonable.
Domestic Issues of Concern
There were quite a number of concerns the Wilson administration had about certain groups that were in opposition to the war. Public criticism of the war was definitely a major concern of the government. Since a significant number of troops would be needed to carry out the war effort, a draft was imposed. Among the concerns the government had was the notion that constant criticism would make recruitment and even conscription difficult.
The government was also growing somewhat uneasy over the antiwar activities of various labor groups. The Industrial Workers of the World (The IWW aka The Wobblies) were among the most vocal of critics and their membership was significant. Among the reasons why the IWW was critical of the war was it was sympathetic to the global labor movement. Some of the nations that United States was opposing in the war had large labor movements.
Concerns Over Treason
While issues of free speech were at the core of many challenges to the law, the bulk of the law dealt with outright hostile acts of treason.
The Espionage Act Becomes Law
Although the act was signed into law in 1917, the origins of it date back to December of 1915. Wilson tried to sell the public and Congress on the law at this time, but there was not a huge groundswell for its passage. As the events of World War I intensified, the desire on Congress’ part to pass the law increased.
There were numerous laws already on the books that covered espionage and sedition. This new law simply reaffirmed many of them. The law was passed on June 15, 1917 and it was heavily based on and built upon the Defense Secrets Act of 1911. At the crux of this law were severe penalties for those that illegally procured secrets related to national defense. With the Espionage Act, the penalties for these violations become much more severe. Depending upon the circumstances, a person convicted of treason under this act could face the death penalty.
Legal Challenges to the Espionage Act
The common legal challenges to the Espionage Act of 1917 were not rooted in issues surrounding high treason. Rather, they centered on issues related to free speech and civil liberties. Earlier versions of the bill included the ability to censor the press if needed. Wilson was adamant about this provision, but it did not garner enough support in the Senate. The version of the bill that Wilson eventually signed did not include any powers to censor the press.
In 1918, the law was made even stronger when its amending legislation was adopted via the Sedition Act of 1918. Again, this was a law that was passed due to the grave threat the US faced in World War One.
There were almost immediate challenges to the law in the court. In 1919, the Supreme Court eventually ruled in Schenck v. United States that the law was constitutional because it dealt with clear and present dangers to the United States. Hence, it was not trying to suppress free speech in broad and general terms as it related to citizens and the press.
There were quite a number of highly publicized convictions under the law. In 1916, socialist leader Eugene V. Debs would be convicted under the act and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (His sentence was commuted after five years) The motion picture The Spirit of ’76 was confiscated by the government due to the belief that it was undermining the war effort. The film’s producer, Robert Goldstein, was sentenced to three years in prison for his involvement in the making of the film.
World War I Comes to a Close
After the end of World War I, prosecutions under the Espionage Act of 1917 were rare. Even in World War II, prosecutions were mostly limited to outright acts of hostility and treason. The law remains on the books today and is used sparingly and only in the most serious of circumstances.