1916 July 6

Army Announces Press Censorship Plans in Case of War


The U.S. Army on this day, speaking through Major Douglas MacArthur, announced its plans for censoring the press in the event that the U.S. entered the European war (what at the time was called the Great War and we know as World War I). (MacArthur was later the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific during World War II.) The Army’s plans were developed in response to a request from Congress, which was considering a bill to censor the press in war time. The plan stated that “adverse criticism” of the war effort “may tend to destroy the efficiency” of the war effort. The Army cited the press censorship that existed in England, France, and Germany as Europe entered the third year of what came to be known as World War I.

In the end, Congress debated but never passed a press censorship law, because of strong opposition from the news media and also from Republicans who were fearful of what President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, would do with it.

Despite the absence of a press censorship law, after the U.S. entered the war, on April 6, 1917, the federal government embarked on a massive suppression of freedom of speech and press regarding criticism of the war. The Post Office, for example, suppressed the anti-war press through its longstanding power to deny second-class mailing privilege to materials deemed “objectionable. See the important case involving the magazine The Masses, which was banned from the mails by the Post Office: July 24, 1917 and November 2, 1917.

Opponents of the war were also prosecuted under the Espionage Act (June 15, 1917) and the Sedition Act (May 16, 1918). The massive repression of dissent during World War I gave rise to first the National Civil Liberties Bureau on July 2, 1917 and then the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on January 19, 1920.

Learn more: Paul Murphy, World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States (1979)

Learn about freedom of the press at the First Amendment Center here.

Learn about the ACLU during times of national crisis: https://www.aclu.org/aclu-history-defending-liberty-times-national-crisis

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