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Sedition Act of 1918


Purpose of Legislation:

To punish unpatriotic speech during wartime. Rep. Percy Quin (D-MS), a co-sponsor of the bill, summarized its intent: "I want to curb these fellows," he said, "who are disloyal in their hearts." The Espionage Act of 1917, passed the previous year, had already criminalized speech that could have the effect of limiting military recruitment - but the Sedition Act broadened these penalties to include all criticism of the U.S. government. The intended targets were the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), referred to as "pernicious vermin" by Sedition Act co-sponsor Sen. Kenneth McKellar (D-TN), who tended to be both labor organizers and socialists. The language of the amendment was based on Montana's notorious anti-sedition law, under which 79 people were convicted.

Text of Legislation:

The Sedition Act amended the text of the Espionage Act of 1917 to include the following paragraphs:
Amendment to section 3 of the Espionage Act:

Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or 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, or shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements, or say or do anything except by way of bona fide and not disloyal advice to an investor or investors, with intent to obstruct the sale by the United States of bonds or other securities of the United States or the making of loans by or to the United States, and whoever when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause, or incite or attempt to incite, insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, 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 of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute, or shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States, or to promote the cause of its enemies, or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully by utterance, writing, printing, publication, or language spoken, urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things, product or products, necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war in which the United States may be engaged, with intent by such curtailment to cripple or hinder the United States in the prosecution of war, and whoever shall willfully advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated, and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or the imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both: Provided, That any employee or official of the United States Government who commits any disloyal act or utters any unpatriotic or disloyal language, or who, in an abusive and violent manner criticizes the Army or Navy or the flag of the United States shall be at once dismissed from the service.

Amendment to section 4 of the Espionage Act:

When the United States is at war, the Postmaster General may, upon evidence satisfactory to him that any person or concern is using the mails in violation of any of the provisions of this Act, instruct the postmaster at any post office at which mail is received addressed to such person or concern to return to the postmaster at the office at which they were originally mailed all letters or other matter so addressed, with the words 'Mail to this address undeliverable under Espionage Act' plainly written or stamped upon the outside thereof, and all such letters or other matter so returned to such postmasters shall be by them returned to the senders thereof under such regulations as the Postmaster General may prescribe.
It is important to note that the Sedition Act did not exist as a separate law under the U.S. code - it consisted entirely of revisions to the Espionage Act.

Passage of Legislation:

The Sedition Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a 293-1 margin. The only representative to vote against it was Rep. Meyer London of New York, who was himself a member of the Socialist Party and subsequently could have been prosecuted under its provisions himself due to his political beliefs. It passed the U.S. Senate by a much closer 46-28 margin, and was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on May 16th, 1918.

Effect of Legislation:

More than 1,500 people were arrested under the Espionage Act. Specifically cited for sedition were prominent labor organizers Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs, but the language of the Sedition Act revisions made other Espionage Act arrests extremely easy.

Constitutionality of Legislation:

The Sedition Act language was blatantly unconstitutional under the First Amendment's free speech clause, but was not found to be such during wartime due to the climate of near-unanimous patriotic fervor. The Supreme Court ruled three times on the Espionage and Sedition Acts:
  • In the unanimous Schenck v. United States, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that free speech does not apply in cases where speech poses a "clear and present danger" to the country (by harming morale and discouraging people from registering for the draft, in this case);
  • Again in the unanimous Debs v. United States (1919), in which the Schenck logic was more explicitly applied to the Sedition Act revisions; and
  • In Abrams v. United States (1919), where Justice Holmes, who had supported the prior decision, dissented and argued that the "clear and present danger" doctrine had been abused by prosecutors. "[W]e should be eternally vigilant," he wrote, "against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country."
The "clear and present danger" doctrine was rejected outright in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), in which the Supreme Court held that speech must lead to "imminent unlawful action" in order to warrant restriction.


The Espionage Act was repealed on December 13, 1920; this also repealed the Sedition Act. Those convicted under the Sedition Act were freed shortly after the war. Attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer advocated renewing the Acts, but this effort - like his presidential campaign - was doomed to failure. More recently, 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich attempted to revive the Sedition Act as part of the U.S. government's response to the 9/11 attacks, but this effort, too, was unsuccessful.
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