Espionage Act

The First Amendment, A Modern Creation

The first amendment of the constitution, which ensures citizens the freedom of speech, expression, the freedom of religion and from religion, the freedom to protest, etc..., seems so basic and fundamental, that its absoluteness is often not questioned. However, it is clear, that the modern ideal of the First Amendment, one which is broad, progressive and  encompasses almost any manner of expression, is a new phenomenon.

With the onset of WWI and the rise of the United States as a global power, the extent to entails protected speech was tested. When speech seemingly runs counter to the needs and  actions of a government, said speech is deemed non-protected and in violation of sedition, libel and obscene. In the case of anti-war sentiment during WWI, which overtly opposed government policies, the United States government silenced and imprisoned citizens, many of whom were socialist and anarchist, political ideologies which law makers felt challenged the foundations of the republic.

Congressional Authorized Censorship

The Espionage Act of 1917,  authorized the state to punish all individuals who engaged in expression which supposedly undermined the United States economic and political policies. The law prohibited any individual form undermining the war effort in any way, particularly in regards to protesting conscription and also the war itself. Conviction under the Espionage Act carried with it a possible 20years prison sentence. Publicans and individuals who were convicted of such unprotected speech were censored and subject to lengthy prison sentences and large fines.

WWI and the Limitationson Speech

Howard Zinn states that "War is the Health of the State", a statement which illustrates the extent to which law makers viewed anti-war socialists and anarchists as threatening the health of the United States. When the United States declared war in 1917, the government attempted to stifle and censor any and all critical opposition. As seen in this editorial cartoon, the United States needed patriotic, unquestioning soldiers to engae in its questionable war. In doing so, the United States congress passed legislation which censored anti war activist, socialists, anarchist, communists and any  political ideology that ran counter to the interests of the current government. In particular, the socialist workers organization, the Industrial Workers of the World, who engaged in leftist political activism, were raided, as seen in this photograph, by the the United States Government, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, under the Espionage Act of 1917. Although the IWW was seemingly acting within the bounds of the First Amendment, the Espionage Act of 1917 allowed the government to interpret the First Amendment for purposes of its own self interest.

Eugene V. Debs

As a founder of the IWW, a powerful labor leader, and also the countries most out spoken and well known socialist and radicals, Debs was a clear target for censorship under the Espionage Act. After criticisizing Americas involvement in WWI, advocating principles of non violence and pacificism,  the government viewed Debs as a clear threat to the stability of the United State's free market and war effort. In violation of the Espionage Act and Sedition Act, the United States government sentenced Deb to ten years in prison for seditious expression made during a public speech. In Debs response to his sentencing, the former presidential candidate remained committed to his socialist principles and his rights of expression and protest.

A Clear and Present Danger

With the passage of the Espionage and Sedition act in 1917, the United States begin to prosecute a number radicals. Charles Schenck, a socialist, distributed fliers which protested the conscription of citizens and also the United State's involvement in WWI. Using the Espionage Act, the government charged Schenk with espionage and sedition, with the intent of interfering with the conscription of soldiers. The case was eventually brought to the Supreme Court, which ruled against Schenk

In his ruling opinion, Supreme Court Justice Holmes stated that speech which presents a clear and present danger to society and the government is not constitutionally protected. This ruling set a precedent for the prosecution of radical thought for many decades.


Although the United States Government was certainly acting  on behalf of its self interest, and with the intention fo the coutnry at large, the prosecution of individuals under the Espionage Act is questionable. Students should look at the primary sources provided, and determine to what extent First Amendment rights should be limited. In doing so, one should consider what constitutes legally protected speech and whether potentially dangerous speech is unprotected.