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The Sedition Act of 1918 was an Act of the United States Congress signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on May 16, 1918.[1] It forbade the use of "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces or that caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt. The act also allowed the Postmaster General to refuse to deliver mail that met those same standards for punishable speech or opinion. It applied only to times "when the United States is in war."[2] It was repealed on December 13, 1920.[3]

Though the legislation enacted in 1918 is commonly called the Sedition Act, it was actually a set of amendments to the Espionage Act.[4] Therefore many studies of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act find it difficult to report about the two "acts" separately. For example, one historian reports that "some fifteen hundred prosecutions were carried out under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, resulting in more than a thousand convictions.[5] Court decisions do not use the shorthand term Sedition Act, but the correct legal term for the law, the Espionage Act, whether as originally enacted or as amended in 1918.



The Espionage Act made it a crime to aid enemies of the United States or to interfere with the war effort or with military recruitment. The Sedition Act extended its provisions to cover a broader range of offenses, notably speech and the expression of opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light or interfered with the sale of government bonds. One historian of American civil liberties has called it "the nation's most extreme antispeech legislation."[6] Those convicted under the act generally received sentences of imprisonment for 10 to 20 years.[7]

As Congress debated the law's provisions, one argument made in its favor was that the country was witnessing instances of mob and vigilante behavior that represented the public's own attempt to punish criminal speech in light of the government's inability to prosecute such speech. The Sedition Act, it was argued, would prevent mobs from doing what the government could not.[8] While much of the debate focused on the law's precise language, there was considerable opposition in the Senate, almost entirely from Republicans like Henry Cabot Lodge and Hiram Johnson, the former speaking in defense of free speech and the latter assailing the administration for failing to use the laws already in place.[9] Former president Theodore Roosevelt voiced opposition as well.[10] President Wilson and his Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory viewed the bill as a political compromise. They hoped to avoid hearings that would embarrass the administration for its failure to prosecute offensive speech. They also feared other proposals that would have withdrawn prosecutorial authority from the Justice Department and placed it in the War Department, creating a sort of civilian court-martial process of questionable constitutionality.[11] The final vote for passage was 48 to 26 in the Senate[9] and 293 to 1 in the House of Representatives.[12]

Officials in the Justice Department who had little enthusiasm for the law nevertheless hoped that even without generating many prosecutions it would help quiet public calls for more government action against those thought to be insufficiently patriotic.[13] In fact the legislation came so late in the war, just a few months before Armistice Day, that prosecutions under the provisions of the Sedition Act were few.[14] One notable case was that of Mollie Steimer, convicted under the Espionage Act as amended by the Sedition Act.[15] U.S. Attorneys at first had considerable discretion in using these laws, until Gregory, a few weeks before the end of the war, instructed them not to act without his approval. Enforcement varied greatly from one jurisdiction to the next, with most activity in the Western states where the I.W.W. was active.[16]

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act in Abrams v. United States,[17] but subsequent Supreme Court decisions, such as Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969, make it unlikely that similar legislation would be considered constitutional today.[citation needed]

Most U.S. newspapers "showed no antipathy toward the act" and "far from opposing the measure, the leading papers seemed actually to lead the movement in behalf of its speedy enactment."[18]

In March 1919, President Wilson, at the suggestion of Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory released or reduced the sentences of some 200 prisoners convicted under the Espionage Act or the Sedition Act.[19]

With the act rendered inoperative by the end of hostilities, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer waged a public campaign, not unrelated to his own campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, in favor of a peacetime version of the Sedition Act.[20] He sent a circular outlining his rationale to newspaper editors in January 1919, citing the dangerous foreign-language press and radical attempts to create unrest in African American communities.[21] He testified in favor of such a law in early June 1920. At one point Congress had more than 70 versions of proposed language and amendments for such a bill,[22] but it took no action on the controversial proposal during the campaign year of 1920.[23] After a court decision later in June cited Palmer's anti-radical campaign for its abuse of power, the conservative Christian Science Monitor found itself unable to support him any more, writing on June 25, 1920: "What appeared to be an excess of radicalism...was certainly met excess of suppression."[24]

Congress repealed the Sedition Act on December 13, 1920.[25][26][27]

The Alien Registration Act of 1940 was the first American peacetime sedition act.[28]

Excerpts from the Sedition Act

Section 3

Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports...with intent to interfere with the operation...of the military or naval forces of the United States...
or say or do an investor...with intent to obstruct the sale by the United States of bonds or other securities...
and whoever when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause...insubordination... in the military or naval forces of the United States,
or shall willfully obstruct or attempt to obstruct the recruiting or enlistment services of the United States
and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution...or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag...
or shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States...
or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy
or shall willfully by utterance, writing, printing, publication, or language spoken, urge...any curtailment of production in this country of any the prosecution of the war...
and whoever shall willfully advocate...the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated...or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war...
shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or the imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both....

Section 4

When the United States is at war, the Postmaster General may, upon evidence...that any using the mails in violation...of this Act, instruct the postmaster at any post office at which mail is received addressed to such return to the postmaster at the office at which they were originally mailed all letters or other matter so addressed...

See also

Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007


  1. ^ Stone, 190
  2. ^ Stone, 186; Chafee, 44-5
  3. ^ Stone, 230
  4. ^ Chafee, 44
  5. ^ Avrich, 94
  6. ^ Stone, 541; Kennedy, 80
  7. ^ Stone, 12
  8. ^ Stone, 187-8; Chafee, 46
  9. ^ a b New York Times: "Senate Accepts Sedition Bill," May 5, 1918, accessed February 12, 2010; New York Times: "Senators Assail the Sedition Bill," May 4, 1918, accessed February 11, 2010; New York Times: "Fears Speech Curb in Sedition Bill," April 25, 1918, accessed February 11, 2010
  10. ^ Stone, 189-90
  11. ^ Kennedy, 80. The New York Times endorsed the military court solution: New York Times: "Spies and their Congeners," April 22, 1918, accessed February 11, 2010. "Congeners" means "others of the same sort."
  12. ^ Stone, 190
  13. ^ Stone, 191n
  14. ^ Stone, 191n
  15. ^ Stone, 139.
  16. ^ Kennedy, 83
  17. ^ Kennedy, 86
  18. ^ Mock,
  19. ^ Stone, 231-2
  20. ^ Stone, 225. President Wilson endorsed a peacetime Sedition Act in December 1919. Kennedy, 87
  21. ^ Chafee, 195-6
  22. ^ Chafee, 197
  23. ^ Nelles, 2
  24. ^ Stone, 226; Chafee, 198
  25. ^ Stone, 230
  26. ^ According to Kennedy, 87n, the Sedition Act amendments were set to expire in 1921.
  27. ^ According to Hagedorn, 433, the Sedition Act amendments were repealed in March 1921.
  28. ^ Kennedy, 87


  • Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991)
  • Hagedorn, Ann, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007)
  • Kennedy, David M., Over Here: The First World War and American Society (NY: Oxford University Press, 2004))
  • Mock, James R., Censorship 1917 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941)
  • Nelles, Walter, Seeing Red: Civil Liberty and the Law in the Period Following the War (American Civil Liberties Union, 1920)
  • Stone, Geoffrey R., Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004)

Further reading

  • Kohn, Stephen M., American Political Prisoners: Prosecutions under the Espionage and Sedition Acts (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994)
  • Murphy, Paul L., World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States (NY: W.W. Norton, 1979)
  • Peterson, H.C., and Gilbert C. Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957)
  • Preston, William, Jr. Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994)
  • Rabban, David M., Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  • Scheiber, Harry N., The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties 1917-1921 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1960)
  • Thomas, William H., Jr. Unsafe for Democracy: World War I and the U.S. Justice Department's Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008)

External links

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