1918 May 16

Sedition Act Passed: World War I Repression Intensifies


The 1918 Sedition Act amended the 1917 Espionage Act (passed on June 15, 1917), greatly expanding the power of officials to suppress speech and writings critical of the government (see the crucial part of the new law below). It became another instrument of repression of dissent during World War I, although the Espionage Act had already been a powerful weapon against anti-war dissenters.

Legal historian Geoffrey Stone, in Perilous Times (see below), called the 1918 Sedition Act “the most repressive legislation in American history.”

The 1918 Sedition Act should not be confused with the Sedition Act of 1798 (July 14, 1798), which became a notorious instrument of repression of free speech under President John Adams. The 1940 Smith Act, meanwhile, specifically outlawed advocating the violent overthrow of the government (see June 28, 1940).

The Sedition Act of 1918 made it a crime to “ . . .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 . . . .”

Learn more about the history of free speech in wartime: Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004)

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

Read the important new book on free speech: Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016)

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