1917 February 17

Senators Denounce Proposed Espionage Bill as War Becomes Imminent


As U.S. entry into World War I became increasingly likely, Senators on this day denounced an Espionage Bill proposed by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. The bill would delegate sweeping and broad authority to the president to enforce regulations that were not specified in the bill. One section would make it a crime to violate any “Regulation to be prescribed by the President,” without providing a specifics.

This provision of the proposed espionage bill was dropped, but the Espionage Act became law on June 15, 1917 and quickly became one of the major instruments of repression of dissent during World War I. One of the most famous cases involved the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, for a speech in Canton, Ohio (in which he did not even mention the war or criticize the government) (June 16, 1918).

The famous predecessor of the 1917 Espionage Act was the 1798 Sedition Act (enacted on July 14, 1798, and often referred to as part of the Alien and Sedition Acts), which President John Adams used to punish critics of his administration. Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800 and promptly pardoned all those who had been convicted under the law.

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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