Sedition Act of 1918

Sedition Act of 1918
Great Seal of the United States
Enacted bythe 65th United States Congress
EffectiveMay 16, 1918
Codification
Acts repealedDecember 13, 1920
Legislative history
  • Passed the House of Representatives on 1918 (293 to 1)
  • Passed the Senate on 1918 (48 to 26)
  • Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on May 16, 1918
United States Supreme Court cases
Abrams v. United States
Brandenburg v. Ohio

The Sedition Act of 1918 (Pub.L. 65–150, 40 553, enacted May 16, 1918) was an Act of the United States Congress that extended the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover a broader range of offenses, notably speech and the expression of opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light or interfered with the sale of government bonds.[1]

It forbade the use of "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces or that caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt. Those convicted under the act generally received sentences of imprisonment for five to 20 years.[2] The act also allowed the Postmaster General to refuse to deliver mail that met those same standards for punishable speech or opinion. It applied only to times "when the United States is in war." The U.S. was in a declared state of war at the time of passage, the First World War.[3] The law was repealed on December 13, 1920.[4]

Though the legislation enacted in 1918 is commonly called the Sedition Act, it was actually a set of amendments to the Espionage Act.[5] Therefore, many studies of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act find it difficult to report on the two "acts" separately. For example, one historian reports that "some fifteen hundred prosecutions were carried out under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, resulting in more than a thousand convictions."[6] Court decisions do not use the shorthand term Sedition Act, but the correct legal term for the law, the Espionage Act, whether as originally enacted or as amended in 1918.

Earlier legislation

The Espionage Act of 1917 made it a crime to interfere with the war effort, disrupt military recruitment, or to attempt to aid a nation at war with the U.S. Wartime violence on the part of local groups of citizens, sometimes mobs or vigilantes, persuaded some lawmakers that the law was inadequate. In their view the country was witnessing instances of public disorder that represented the public's own attempt to punish unpopular speech in light of the government's inability to do so. Amendments to enhance the government's authority under the Espionage Act would prevent mobs from doing what the government could not.[7]

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