1917 June 15

Espionage Act Passes – Instrument of World War I Suppression of Dissent


The Espionage Act, passed by Congress on this day, became the primary instrument for prosecuting opponents of World War I. The law made it a crime to interfere with military operations, which included the draft. The latter provision was often interpreted to mean that criticizing the war was illegal because it would encourage young men not to cooperate with the draft. The law was amended and strengthened, on May 16, 1918, by the Sedition Act, which also made it a crime to criticize the government.

One of the most famous Espionage Act prosecutions involved Eugene V. Debs, who was convicted of giving an antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Socialist and anti-war activist Charles T. Schenck under the Espionage Act, in the case of Schenck v. United States, on March 3, 1919, in which it also created the “clear and present danger” test.

Also on this day, the famous anarchist and anti-war activist Emma Goldman was arrested for her speech in New York, on May 18, 1917, opposing the draft. She was convicted of violating the Espionage Act, served time in prison, and was later deported to the Soviet Union, on December 21, 1919.

The Espionage Act: “Whoever shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, to the injury of the service or of the United States, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both.”

Read: Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004)

Learn more about the Espionage Act: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.co/Espionage+Act+of+1917

Learn more about the WW I prosecutions: Stephen Kohn, American Political Prisoners: Prosecutions Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts (1994)

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