Sedition Act of 1918

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Sedition Act of 1918
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Long titleAn Act to amend section three, title one, of the Act entitled "An Act to punish acts of interference with the foreign relations, the neutrality, and the foreign commerce of the United States, to punish espionage, and better to enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and for other purposes," approved June fifteenth, nineteen hundred and seventeen, and for other purposes.
Enacted bythe 65th United States Congress
EffectiveMay 16, 1918
Public law 65-150
Statutes at Large 40  Stat.   553
Acts repealedDecember 13, 1920
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the Houseas H.R. 8753 by Edwin Y. Webb (DNC) on April 17, 1918
  • Passed the House on April 23, 1918 (Passed)
  • Passed the Senate on May 4, 1918 (48-26)
  • Reported by the joint conference committee on May 7, 1918; agreed to by the House on May 7, 1918 (292-1) and by the Senate on May 7, 1918 (Agreed)
  • Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on May 16, 1918
United States Supreme Court cases
Abrams v. United States
Brandenburg v. Ohio

The Sedition Act of 1918 (Pub.L.   65–150 , 40  Stat.   553 , enacted May 16, 1918) was an Act of the United States Congress that extended the Espionage Act of 1917 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. [1]

An Act of Congress is a statute enacted by the United States Congress. It can either be a Public Law, relating to the general public, or a Private Law, relating to specific institutions or individuals.

<i>United States Statutes at Large</i>

The United States Statutes at Large, commonly referred to as the Statutes at Large and abbreviated Stat., are an official record of Acts of Congress and concurrent resolutions passed by the United States Congress. Each act and resolution of Congress is originally published as a slip law, which is classified as either public law or private law (Pvt.L.), and designated and numbered accordingly. At the end of a Congressional session, the statutes enacted during that session are compiled into bound books, known as "session law" publications. The session law publication for U.S. Federal statutes is called the United States Statutes at Large. In that publication, the public laws and private laws are numbered and organized in chronological order. U.S. Federal statutes are published in a three-part process, consisting of slip laws, session laws, and codification.

United States Congress Legislature of the United States

The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the Federal Government of the United States. The legislature consists of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate.


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. Those convicted under the act generally received sentences of imprisonment for five to 20 years. [2] 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." The U.S. was in a declared state of war at the time of passage, the First World War. [3] The law was repealed on December 13, 1920. [4]

United States Postmaster General chief executive officer of the United States Postal Service

The Postmaster General of the United States is the chief executive officer of the United States Postal Service; Megan Brennan is the current Postmaster General.

Declaration of war by the United States

A declaration of war is a formal declaration issued by a national government indicating that a state of war exists between that nation and another. The document Declarations of War and Authorizations for the Use of Military Force: Historical Background and Legal Implications gives an extensive listing and summary of statutes which are automatically engaged upon the US declaring war.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

Though the legislation enacted in 1918 is commonly called the Sedition Act, it was actually a set of amendments to the Espionage Act. [5] Therefore, many studies of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act find it difficult to report on 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." [6] 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.

Earlier legislation

The Espionage Act of 1917 made it a crime to interfere with the war effort, disrupt military recruitment, or to attempt to aid a nation at war with the U.S. Wartime violence on the part of local groups of citizens, sometimes mobs or vigilantes, persuaded some lawmakers that the law was inadequate. In their view the country was witnessing instances of public disorder that represented the public's own attempt to punish unpopular speech in light of the government's inability to do so. Amendments to enhance the government's authority under the Espionage Act would prevent mobs from doing what the government could not. [7]

Espionage Act of 1917

The Espionage Act of 1917 is a United States federal law passed on June 15, 1917, shortly after the U.S. entry into World War I. It has been amended numerous times over the years. It was originally found in Title 50 of the U.S. Code (War) but is now found under Title 18, Crime. Specifically, it is 18 U.S.C. ch. 37

Vigilante civilian who undertakes law enforcement without legal authority

A vigilante is a civilian or organization acting in a law enforcement capacity without legal authority.

Debate and enactment

Portrait photograph of Woodrow Wilson Portrait photograph of Woodrow Wilson.jpg
Portrait photograph of Woodrow Wilson

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. [8] [9] The final vote for passage was 48 to 26 in the Senate [10] and 293 to 1 in the House of Representatives, [11] with the sole dissenting vote in the House cast by Meyer London of New York. [12]

Thomas Watt Gregory American lawyer

Thomas Watt Gregory was a political progressive and American attorney who served as United States Attorney General from 1914 to 1919, during President Woodrow Wilson's administration.

Meyer London American politician

Meyer London was an American politician from New York City. He was one of only two members of the Socialist Party of America elected to the United States Congress.

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. [10] [13] [14] Former President Theodore Roosevelt voiced opposition as well. [15]

Henry Cabot Lodge American statesman

Henry Cabot Lodge was an American Republican Senator and historian from Massachusetts. A member of the prominent Lodge family, he received his PhD in history from Harvard University. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he joined Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity. He is best known for his positions on foreign policy, especially his battle with President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 over the Treaty of Versailles. The failure of that treaty ensured that the United States never joined the League of Nations.

Hiram Johnson Governor of California

Hiram Warren Johnson was initially a leading American progressive and then a Liberal Isolationist Republican politician from California. He served as the 23rd Governor of California from 1911 to 1917 and as a United States Senator from 1917 to 1945. He was also Theodore Roosevelt's running mate in the 1912 presidential election on the Progressive ticket.

Theodore Roosevelt 26th president of the United States

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was an American statesman, sportsman, conservationist and writer who served as the 26th president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. He previously served as the 25th vice president of the United States from March to September 1901 and as the 33rd governor of New York from 1899 to 1900. As a leader of the Republican Party during this time, he became a driving force for the Progressive Era in the United States in the early 20th century. His face is depicted on Mount Rushmore, alongside those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. In polls of historians and political scientists, Roosevelt is generally ranked as one of the five best presidents.

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. [16]


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." [17]

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. [16] One notable case was that of Mollie Steimer, convicted under the Espionage Act as amended by the Sedition Act. [18] 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 Industrial Workers of the World labor union was prevalent. [19] For example, Marie Equi was arrested for giving a speech at the IWW hall in Portland, Oregon, and was convicted after the war was over. [20]

In April 1918, the government arrested industrialist William Edenborn, a naturalized citizen from Germany, at his railroad business in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was accused of speaking "disloyally" when he allegedly belittled the threat of Germany to the security of the United States. [21]

In June 1918, the Socialist Party figure Eugene V. Debs of Indiana was arrested for violating the Sedition Act by undermining the government's conscription efforts. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served his sentence in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary from April 13, 1919, until December 1921, when President Harding commuted Debs' sentence to time served, effective on December 25, Christmas Day. [22] In March 1919, President Wilson, at the suggestion of Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory, released or reduced the sentences of some two hundred prisoners convicted under the Espionage Act or the Sedition Act. [23]

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. [24] 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. [25] 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, [26] but it took no action on the controversial proposal during the campaign year of 1920. [27] 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." [28] The Alien Registration Act of 1940 was the first American peacetime sedition act. [29]

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act in Abrams v. United States (1919), [30] although Oliver Wendell Holmes used his dissenting opinion to make a commentary on what has come to be known as "the marketplace of ideas". Subsequent Supreme Court decisions, such as Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), make it unlikely that similar legislation would be considered constitutional today.

As part of a sweeping repeal of wartime laws, Congress repealed the Sedition Act on December 13, 1920. [4] [31] [32]

See also

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Sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that tends toward insurrection against the established order. Sedition often includes subversion of a constitution and incitement of discontent towards, or resistance against established authority. Sedition may include any commotion, though not aimed at direct and open violence against the laws. Seditious words in writing are seditious libel. A seditionist is one who engages in or promotes the interest of sedition.

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  1. Stone, 541; Kennedy, 80
  2. Stone, 12
  3. Stone, 186; Chafee, 44-5
  4. 1 2 Stone, 230
  5. Chafee, 44
  6. Avrich, 94
  7. Stone, 187-8; Chafee, 46.
  8. Kennedy, 80.
  9. "Spies and their Congeners". The New York Times. April 22, 1918. Retrieved February 11, 2010. ("Congeners" means "others of the same sort.")
  10. 1 2 "Senate Accepts Sedition Bill". The New York Times. May 5, 1918. Retrieved February 12, 2010.
  11. Stone, 190
  12. "Sedition Bill Sent to Wilson by House" (PDF). The New York Times. May 8, 1918. Retrieved November 18, 2010.
  13. "Senators Assail the Sedition Bill". The New York Times. May 4, 1918. Retrieved February 11, 2010.
  14. "Fears Speech Curb in Sedition Bill". The New York Times. April 25, 1918. Retrieved February 11, 2010.
  15. Stone, 189-90.
  16. 1 2 Stone, 191n.
  17. Mock,
  18. Stone, 139.
  19. Kennedy, 83
  20. Hodges, Michael (Fall 2007), "At War Over the Espionage Act in Portland", Oregon Historical Quarterly, 108 (3), archived from the original on October 15, 2008
  21. "Railway President Held as Seditionist; William Edenborn, Naturalized German, Accused of Disloyal Speech in Louisiana, April 28, 1918". The New York Times , April 28, 1918. April 29, 1918. Retrieved October 30, 2010.
  22. New York Times: "Harding Frees Debs and 23 Others Held for War Violations," December 24, 1921, accessed January 4, 2011
  23. Stone, 231-2
  24. Stone, 225. President Wilson endorsed a peacetime Sedition Act in December 1919. Kennedy, 87
  25. Chafee, 195-6
  26. Chafee, 197
  27. Nelles, 2
  28. Stone, 226; Chafee, 198
  29. Kennedy, 87
  30. Kennedy, 86
  31. According to Kennedy, 87n, the Sedition Act amendments were set to expire in 1921.
  32. According to Hagedorn, 433, the Sedition Act amendments were repealed in March 1921.


Further reading