Espionage Act of 1917

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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One of the most controversial laws ever passed in the United States, the Espionage Act of 1917 (ch. 30, tit. I § 3, 40 Stat. 217, 219), and an amendment to it passed in 1918 sometimes referred to as the Sedition Act, were an attempt to deal with the climate created in the country by WORLD WAR I. While most of the Espionage Act was straightforward and non-controversial, parts of this legislation curtailed FREEDOM OF SPEECH in such a way as to draw an outcry from civil libertarians. It resulted in several important U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding freedom of speech that continue to be studied.

With World War I raging in 1917, the administration of President WOODROW WILSON decided that there needed to be a law protecting the United States against "the insidious methods of internal hostile activities." While the United States had ESPIONAGE laws already on the books,

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it had not had a law against seditious expression since the ALIEN AND SEDITION ACTS of 1798 expired. But Wilson and his cabinet had begun to express concern about what Attorney General THOMAS GREGORY referred to as "warfare by propaganda."

Thus the Wilson administration proposed and Congress passed the "Espionage Act of 1917." Much of the act simply served to supersede existing espionage laws. Sections of the act covered the following: vessels in ports of the United States, interference with foreign commerce by violent means, seizure of arms and other articles intended for export, enforcement of neutrality, passports, counterfeiting government seals, and search warrants.

The part of the act dealing specifically with espionage contained standard clauses criminalizing "obtaining information respecting the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information to be obtained is to be used to the injury of the United States" or obtaining such things as code books, signal books, sketches, photographs, photographic negatives, and blue prints with the intention of passing them on to the enemy. While more comprehensive, these passages were not much different than what had been in previous laws against spying and espionage.

But the Espionage Act went further. It deemed a criminal anyone who, "when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to...

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