The Sedition Act of 1918 was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917 passed by Congress at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, who was concerned that any antiwar speech and organizing to oppose the draft and the war effort constituted a real threat to an American victory. Congress passed a measure, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, that made it punishable by up to 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States” — a blatant violation of the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
Surprisingly, the Supreme Court unanimously held the law did not violate the First Amendment. It held that words which ordinarily would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances a to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent.
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. Former President Theodore Roosevelt voiced opposition as well.
The act, along with other similar federal laws, was used to convict at least 877 people in 1919 and 1920, according to a report by the attorney general. In 1919, the Court heard several important free speech cases — including Debs v. United States and Abrams v. United States — involving the constitutionality of the law. In both cases, the Court upheld the convictions as well as the law.
Those convicted under the act generally received sentences of imprisonment for five to 20 years. The act also allowed the Postmaster General to deny mail delivery to dissenters of government policy during wartime. The Espionage Act made it a crime to help wartime enemies of the United States, but the Sedition Act made it a crime to utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States’ form of government.
“One could go to jail for cursing or criticizing the government, even if what one said was true,” a 2005 NIH report on the 1918 Flu Pandemic said, noting that even a U.S. congressman was eventually put in jail for violating the law. At the same time, the federal government launched a huge propaganda effort, which prompted one of the architects of it to remark, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms…. There is nothing in experience to tell us that one is always preferable to the other…. The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”
The NIH report further stated:
The combination of rigid control and disregard for truth had dangerous consequences. Focusing on the shortest term, local officials almost universally told half-truths or outright lies to avoid damaging morale and the war effort. They were assisted–not challenged–by the press, which although not censored in a technical sense cooperated fully with the government’s propaganda machine.
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.”
The law was repealed on December 13, 1920.