16
May
09

On This Day, May 16: The Sedition Act

May 16, 1918

U.S. Congress passes Sedition Act

On May 16, 1918, the United States Congress passes the Sedition Act, a piece of legislation designed to protect America’s participation in World War I.

Along with the Espionage Act of the previous year, the Sedition Act was orchestrated largely by A. Mitchell Palmer, the United States attorney general under President Woodrow Wilson. The Espionage Act, passed shortly after the U.S. entrance into the war in early April 1917, made it a crime for any person to convey information intended to interfere with the U.S. armed forces’ prosecution of the war effort or to promote the success of the country’s enemies.

Aimed at socialists, pacifists and other anti-war activists, the Sedition Act imposed harsh penalties on anyone found guilty of making false statements that interfered with the prosecution of the war; insulting or abusing the U.S. government, the flag, the Constitution or the military; agitating against the production of necessary war materials; or advocating, teaching or defending any of these acts. Those who were found guilty of such actions, the act stated, “shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both.” This was the same penalty that had been imposed for acts of espionage in the earlier legislation.

Though Wilson and Congress regarded the Sedition Act as crucial in order to stifle the spread of dissent within the country in that time of war, modern legal scholars consider the act as contrary to the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution, namely to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. One of the most famous prosecutions under the Sedition Act during World War I was that of Eugene V. Debs, a pacifist labor organizer and founder of the International Workers of the World (IWW) who had run for president in 1900 as a Social Democrat and in 1904, 1908 and 1912 on the Socialist Party of America ticket.

After delivering an anti-war speech in June 1918 in Canton, Ohio, Debs was arrested, tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison under the Sedition Act. Debs appealed the decision, and the case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court ruled Debs had acted with the intention of obstructing the war effort and upheld his conviction. In the decision, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to the earlier landmark case of Schenck v. United States (1919), when Charles Schenck, also a Socialist, had been found guilty under the Espionage Act after distributing a flyer urging recently drafted men to oppose the U.S. conscription policy. In this decision, Holmes maintained that freedom of speech and press could be constrained in certain instances, and that “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

Debs’ sentence was commuted in 1921 when the Sedition Act was repealed by Congress. Major portions of the Espionage Act remain part of United States law to the present day, although the crime of sedition was largely eliminated by the famous libel case Sullivan v. New York Times (1964), which determined that the press’s criticism of public officials—unless a plaintiff could prove that the statements were made maliciously or with “reckless disregard” for the truth—was protected speech under the First Amendment.

“U.S. Congress passes Sedition Act,” The History Channel website, 2009, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history.do?action=Article&id=562 [accessed May 16, 2009]

 

On This Day

1770 – Marie Antoinette, at age 14, married the future King Louis XVI of France, who was 15.

1879 – The Treaty of Gandamak between Russia and England set up the Afghan state.

1888 – The capitol of Texas was dedicated in Austin.

1948 – The body of CBS News correspondent George Polk was found in Solonika Bay in Greece. It had been a week after he’d disappeared.

1960 – A Big Four summit in Paris collapsed due to the American U-2 spy plane incident.

1963 – After 22 Earth orbits Gordon Cooper returned to Earth, ending Project Mercury.

1969 – Venus 5, a Russian spacecraft, landed on the planet Venus.

1988 – A report released by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared that nicotine was addictive in similar was as heroin and cocaine.

1988 – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police do not have to have a search warrant to search discarded garbage.

1992 – The Endeavour space shuttle landed safely after its maiden voyage.

May 16, 1943

As Brits launch Operation Chastise, Germans launch Operation Gypsy Baron

On this day in 1943, the British Royal Air Force sets into motion a plan to bomb key dams in order to flood the Ruhr region of Germany, while the German army pursues an anti-partisan sweep in Russia.

Operation Chastise, part of a larger strategy of “area bombing” begun a year earlier was led by Guy Gibson, one of the RAF’s best bomber pilots. Leading 18 bombers at low altitude across the North Sea and Holland, Gibson lost six bombers and 56 of his crew (out of 133) who were shot down before reaching their destinations, the Mohne, Eder, and Sorpe dams. The surviving aircraft succeeded in destroying two of their three targets, causing the Ruhr river, a tributary of the Rhine, to flood the surrounding area, killing 1,268 people, including, unfortunately, 700 Russian slave laborers. Gibson would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his successful, though costly, raid.

Meanwhile, the German army went on the offensive against partisan resistance fighters who controlled large tracts of swampland, forest, and mountain ranges and were still battling the German invaders on the eastern front in Russia. Out of 6,000 partisans in the region, German bombing killed 1,584 and another 1,568 were taken prisoner. Bombs were not the only things that fell from the sky; the Germans dropped 840,000 leaflets calling for the surrender of the partisans.

On the evening of that same day, the Warsaw ghetto revolt was finally put down with the destruction of the Warsaw synagogue. The revolt began on April 18 when Jews, walled into a stifling area after the massive German assault on the city, began a heroic armed revolt against their German persecutors. After all was said and done, 14,000 Jews were killed in the revolt or sent to the death camp at Treblinka and another 42,000 were sent to labor camps in Lublin.

“As Brits launch Operation Chastise, Germans launch Operation Gypsy Baron,” The History Channel website, 2009, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history.do?action=Article&id=6455 [accessed May 16, 2009]

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