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8.2: The Espionage and Sedition Acts

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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During World War One, the U.S. Congress passed several laws, the Espionage and Sedition Acts, that criminalized certain acts deemed threatening to the war effort. Some people thought these laws unconstitutionally restricted free speech, while others thought they were necessary. The documents below include Wikipedia articles on the Espionage and Sedition Acts and an excerpt from a famous court case in which the Acts were challenged. The document set concludes with a speech by the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. After giving the speech, Debs was prosecuted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts. After reading all of the documents, decide whether you think Debs was guilty.

Wikipedia on the Espionage Act

Source: Excerpt from the Wikipedia articles on the Espionage Act.

The Espionage Act of 1917 was a United States federal law passed shortly after entering World War I, on June 15, 1917, which made it a crime for a person:

  • To convey information with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies. This was punishable by death or by imprisonment for not more than \begin{align*}30 \;\mathrm{years}\end{align*}.
  • To convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies and whoever when the United States is at war, to cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or to willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States. This was punishable by a maximum \begin{align*}\$\mathrm{USD}\ 10,000\end{align*} fine (almost \begin{align*}\$170,000\end{align*} in today's dollars) and \begin{align*}20\;\mathrm{years}\end{align*} in prison.

Thus, while “espionage” is usually defined as a clandestine activity of getting secret information and passing it on to the enemy, the law vastly extended the meaning of the term to include also the openly carried expressing of political opinions, without revealing any secret, and by persons who had no connection with the enemy - as long as the expressing of such opinions was construed as helping the enemy.

The legislation was passed at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, who feared any widespread dissent in time of war, thinking that it constituted a real threat to an American victory.

Source: Excerpt from the Wikipedia article on the Sedition Act http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedition_Act_of_1918

The Sedition Act of 1918 (May 16, 1918) was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917 passed at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, who was concerned that dissent, in time of war, was a significant threat to morale. The passing of this act forbade Americans to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government, flag, or armed forces during war. The act also allowed the Postmaster General to deny mail delivery to dissenters of government policy during wartime.


  1. Sourcing: Where did these documents come from? What do you know about this source?
  2. Sourcing: How reliable do you consider these documents?
  3. How could you corroborate the information from these documents?

Schenck v. United States – Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Source: Excerpt from a Supreme Court decision in the case of Schenck v. United States, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Schenck was a socialist who opposed the draft in World War I and passed out pamphlets comparing it to slavery. He was prosecuted under the Sedition Act and appealed his case to the Supreme Court, arguing that his pamphlet activity was protected by the \begin{align*}1^{\mathrm{st}}\end{align*} Amendment, under freedom of speech. In the decision below, the Supreme Court decided that Schenck was guilty, and that during wartime, the government may limit freedom of speech.

The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done. The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting “Fire!” in a theatre and causing a panic...

The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent...

When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.

1918 Speech – Eugene V. Debs

Source: Eugene Debs delivered the following speech in June 1918. He visited three Socialists who were in prison for opposing the draft, and then spoke, across the street from the jail, for two hours. The excerpt below is only a small segment of a much longer speech.

Comrades, friends and fellow-workers, thank you for this very cordial greeting, this very hearty reception.

Three of our most loyal comrades are paying the penalty for their devotion to the cause of the working class. They have come to realize, as many of us have, that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.

Every one of these Wall Street conspirators and would-be murderers claims to be an arch-patriot; every one of them insists that the war is being waged to make the world safe for democracy. What humbug! What rot! What false pretense! These autocrats, these tyrants, these red-handed robbers and murderers, the “patriots,” while the men who have the courage to stand face to face with them, speak the truth, and fight for their exploited victims—they are the disloyalists and traitors. If this be true, I want to take my place side by side with the traitors in this fight.

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles, the poor, ignorant serfs had been taught that it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.

In all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

Yours not to reason why; Yours but to do and die.

That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.

If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.

It is the minorities who have made the history of this world. It is the few who have had the courage to take their places at the front; who have been true enough to themselves to speak the truth that was in them; who have dared oppose the established order of things; who have espoused the cause of the suffering, struggling poor; who have upheld without regard to personal consequences the cause of freedom and righteousness.

They are continually talking about your patriotic duty. It is not their but your patriotic duty that they are concerned about. There is a decided difference. Their patriotic duty never takes them to the firing line or chucks them into the trenches.

In passing I suggest that we stop a moment to think about the term “landlord.” “LANDLORD!” Lord of the Land! The lord of the land is indeed a superpatriot. This lord who practically owns the earth tells you that we are fighting this war to make the world safe for democracy—he who profiteers at the expense of the people who have been slain and mutilated by multiplied thousands, under pretense of being the great American patriot. It is he, this patriot who is in fact the archenemy of the people; it is he that you need to wipe from power. It is he who is a far greater menace to your liberty and your well-being than the Prussian Junkers (Germans) on the other side of the Atlantic ocean.

Yes, in good time we are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and re-create them as free and humanizing institutions. The world is daily changing before our eyes. The sun of capitalism is setting; the sun of socialism is rising.

In due time the hour will strike and this great cause triumphant—the greatest in history—will proclaim the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind.


  1. Sourcing: What type of document is this? When was it written?
  2. Sourcing: Who is the audience?
  3. Contextualization: What was happening in the United States and Europe at this time?
  4. Contextualization: Imagine what the scene might have looked like as Debs delivered this speech. Describe it in a few sentences.
  5. Close Reading: What is Debs’ main message? What does he try to convince his audience?

Section Questions

  1. Corroboration: Considering all of these documents, do you think Debs was guilty of violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts? Why?
  2. Do you agree with the Espionage and Sedition Acts? Should the government be able to limit free speech during wartime?

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