Laws passed during World War I outlawing the unauthorized transmission of information that might injure the nation’s defense and banning a wide range of expressions of opinion critical of governmental policies or symbols during wartime.
On June 15, 1917, two months after the United States entered World War I, Congress passed the Espionage Act
Despite the sweeping language and even more sweeping prosecutions associated with the 1917 law, a far more draconian amendment to the Espionage Act, sometimes known as the Sedition Act
Under these laws, more than two thousand people were indicted for written or verbal criticism of the war and more than one thousand were convicted, resulting in more than one hundred jail terms of ten years or more. No one was convicted under the espionage acts during World War I for spying activities. The 1918 amendments to the Espionage Act were repealed in 1920. Although the original 1917 law remains in effect, it was virtually never used after World War I to prosecute expressions of opinion (partly because the 1940 Smith Act included more updated sedition provisions); it has, however, been used in cases involving alleged theft of information, including in the prosecutions of Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg
The Supreme Court handed down six rulings concerning the constitutionality of Espionage Act prosecutions in 1919-1920, during a severe “red scare.” In every case, it upheld lower court convictions. Although the Court’s rulings no doubt reflected the anticommunist climate, they had long-term significance because they were the first cases in which the Court sought to interpret the free speech
In Abrams v. United States
In the only significant Espionage Act case involving First Amendment claims to be decided by the Court after 1920, a Court majority reflected Holmes’s Abrams dissent. In Hartzel v. United States
Chafee, Zechariah. Free Speech in the United States. New York: Atheneum, 1969. Fialka, John. War by Other Means: Economic Espionage in America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Gannon, James. Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies: How Spies and Codebreakers Helped Shape the Twentieth Century. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2001. Hitz, Frederick P. The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. Cloak and Dollar: A History of American Secret Intelligence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Owen, David. Hidden Secrets: A Complete History of Espionage and the Technology Used to Support It. New York: Firefly Books, 2002. Polenberg, Richard. Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Abrams v. United States
Clear and present danger test
First Amendment speech tests
Schenck v. United States
Sedition Act of 1798
Speech and press, freedom of
War and civil liberties