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Abrams v. United States & the 1918 Sedition Act

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we'll explore the Sedition Act of 1918 and the subsequent Supreme Court case, Abrams v. United States. We'll learn about the context behind the Sedition Act, and highlight the key themes surrounding the Abrams v. United States court case.

Freedom of Speech in America: A Context

We have a pretty large degree of freedom here in the United States. A lot of times we take this for granted - many other places around the world don't offer the kind of freedom of expression that the United States does. But it hasn't always been this way. At various points in American history, criticizing the government could be considered a crime. This is hard for us to fathom because we are so used to seeing anarchists, Occupy Wall Street protesters, and all kinds of other factions publicly express their views, even if those views are hostile to the U.S. government.

Let's go back to a time when it was a crime to criticize the American government. Let's learn about the Sedition Act of 1918, and the Abrams v. United States court case that followed it.

The Sedition Act of 1918

The Sedition Act of 1918 made it a crime to criticize the U.S. government and/or undermine its war effort. It went into effect in May 1918, and it prohibited the use of 'disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language' about the U.S. government or the war effort. Remember, in 1918 the United States was involved in World War I, and Woodrow Wilson was president. Isolationist sentiment was strong in the U.S. prior to American intervention in the war, and not everyone approved of American boys being sent overseas to fight the 'Europeans' war.' Anti-war protests were not uncommon, and President Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. government feared the anti-war movement might undermine the war effort. The solution? Forbid anti-war protests, of course! And that's basically what happened.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the Sedition Act of 1918 into law.
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The act was actually an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, which was passed to prevent anarchist and socialist interference with military affairs. By making it a crime to express a political views about the government or the war, the Sedition Act of 1918 greatly extended the scope of the Espionage Act. The Sedition Act was controversial, and was written to apply only to times of war. Essentially, the government was willing to temporarily suspend constitutional rights due to the perceived perils associated with wartime. The act also gave the Postmaster General the authority to halt mail that 'undermined' the war effort.

So let's break this down. What would a violation of the Sedition Act look like? Suppose there was someone on the street corner denouncing the war, yelling out something like: 'The U.S government doesn't care for your well-being! They will ship you off to France where you will be killed, and your wives and mothers will receive your casket! Down with the capitalists' war!' This would have been a crime under the Sedition Act. Or suppose someone was distributing leaflets along the same lines. Boom. A violation of the act. Those convicted under the act could face between 5 and 20 years in prison. It is believed more than 2,000 people were arrested for sedition under the Sedition Act before it was repealed in December of 1920.

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