The Espionage Act of 1917 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United States initially sought to maintain neutrality during World War I, but as the war progressed and the country found its interests threatened, President Woodrow Wilson encouraged Congress to pass strict laws to protect any and all information potentially related to national security. The Espionage Act of 1917 enumerated a broad list of prohibited activities that ranged from the sharing of strategic military information with hostile governments to prohibiting public statements that were considered anti-war or opposed to military recruitment. The act authorized fines, imprisonment, and even death for individuals who wilfully violated its provisions. The Espionage Act was extended by the Sedition Act in 1918 and was modified several times in subsequent years.

Summary Overview

The United States initially sought to maintain neutrality during World War I, but as the war progressed and the country found its interests threatened, President Woodrow Wilson encouraged Congress to pass strict laws to protect any and all information potentially related to national security. The Espionage Act of 1917 enumerated a broad list of prohibited activities that ranged from the sharing of strategic military information with hostile governments to prohibiting public statements that were considered anti-war or opposed to military recruitment. The act authorized fines, imprisonment, and even death for individuals who wilfully violated its provisions. The Espionage Act was extended by the Sedition Act in 1918 and was modified several times in subsequent years.

Defining Moment

In some ways, the harsh prohibitions and punishments established by the Espionage Act felt like a sudden and significant departure from earlier US sentiments of neutrality toward the war in Europe. From its outbreak in 1914 until early 1917, the United States avoided direct involvement in the conflict. But once Congress declared war against Germany in April 1917, the government acted swiftly to punish any activity it believed could threaten the war effort.

The United States prosecuted and jailed several prominent leaders and anti-war activists under the Espionage Act. Joseph Rutherford and several officers of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (later known as Jehovah’s Witnesses) were charged with obstructing recruitment efforts and attempting to cause insubordination within the military for their 1917 book The Finished Mystery. Movie producer Robert Goldstein was convicted under the Espionage Act for his 1917 Revolutionary War film The Spirit of ’76 on the grounds that his negative (and not necessarily factual) portrayal of British soldiers in the film could be detrimental to US support for its allies in the current war.

Many individuals convicted under the Espionage Act appealed, arguing that the prohibition of anti-war or anti-military statements violated the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. However, in the 1919 Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and a majority of the court held that free speech was not violated. Socialist Charles Schenck had been charged under the Espionage Act for distributing flyers stating that the draft amounted to “involuntary servitude,” that it was in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment, and that the public should petition for its repeal. Schenck argued that he had a First Amendment right to distribute the flyers, but the court disagreed; instead, it held that the government retained the right to limit speech that presented a “clear and present danger” to the security of the United States. Justice Holmes famously compared Schenck’s actions to “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” He argued that speech that would be considered harmless during peacetime could lead to serious acts of insubordination during wartime and is not always protected by the First Amendment.

Despite the court’s ruling, debate continued over the Espionage Act, particularly regarding the expression of any anti-war or anti-recruitment sentiments. By March 1919, US Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory recommended that President Wilson pardon the nearly two hundred prisoners already convicted. Many had their sentences reduced, but the sweeping enforcement of the Espionage Act (as well as its expansion in the Sedition Act) led to imprisonment and deportation of numerous individuals before the legislature finally repealed many of the provisions in the early 1920s.

Author Biography

The Espionage Act of 1917 was passed by the Sixty-fifth United States Congress, which sat from March 4, 1917, until March 4, 1919, and oversaw significant legislation from the very beginning of its term, including declaring war against Germany, establishing Liberty Bonds to finance the war, and passing the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson recommended that the legislature establish strict laws to protect national security in light of the war in Europe, even though the country was not officially involved. The Senate passed an early version of the Espionage Act on February 20, 1916, but the Sixty-fourth Congress ended its session before a vote could be taken. Discussion resumed after the United States officially declared war on Germany, but debate ensued over provisions that would allow the president to censor the press in matters of national security.

The Espionage Act was passed in a modified form by the Sixty-fifth Congress on June 15, 1917. In 1918, they extended the provisions of the Espionage Act by passing the Sedition Act; however, most of these provisions were later repealed.

Document Analysis

Section one of the Espionage Act is complex and lists sweeping prohibitions against almost anything that could be construed as communicating about national defense. Its key provisions establish punishment of up to $10,000 in fines, two years in prison, or both for anyone intentionally trying to harm the United States or who provides an advantage to a foreign nation. It became illegal to share information about military locations, shipping facilities, railroads, factories, or signal stations. It also became illegal to acquire, attempt to acquire, or ask someone else to acquire any drawings, photographs, maps, or writings that might be connected with national defense. Receiving any document, code or signal book, photograph, or map related to national defense or that might be used to harm US interests also became grounds for conviction.

Additionally, anyone with possession of, access to, or control over anything related to national defense and who failed to deliver it on demand to any officer or government employee is considered in violation of the act.

Section two prohibits direct or indirect communication with any foreign government or government representative in any way that relates to national defense. In times of war, this section restricts communication about military operations. An individual violating this restriction could face imprisonment of up to thirty years or death.

Section three prohibits making false statements that interfere with military operations and causing or trying to cause insubordination within the military. Interfering with military recruiting is also prohibited. Violators could face fines of up to $10,000 and/or imprisonment up to twenty years.

Section four establishes that if multiple people conspire to do something prohibited in sections two or three, and any one of those people acts to further the conspiracy, all of the individuals can be punished as defined by those sections–even if they do not commit the act themselves.

Section five provides fines and imprisonment for anyone helping to hide an individual known or suspected to have violated any provisions of the act.

Section six permits the president to add “prohibited places” to the act during times of war or national emergency.

Section seven establishes that the act does not limit the usual jurisdiction of military courts.

Section eight defines the geographic areas to which the act applies.

Section nine repeals a prior law that addressed many of the same areas.

Essential Themes

When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, many believed the United States was not ready, and debate ensued about how to prepare in case US involvement became unavoidable. As early as 1915, President Wilson encouraged the legislature to tighten punishments for any actions that could potentially threaten national security. Discussion over the Espionage Act first began in 1916, but questions about its constitutionality caused it to stall in the House. For example, the act originally contained a provision allowing the president to restrict press activity during times of war, which is arguably an unconstitutional restraint on free speech. The act eventually passed in a modified form (and without the press restrictions) in June 1917, just over a month after the United States officially entered the war.

Due to the abrupt change in opinion regarding US involvement, as well as the anxiety brought by this involvement, the Espionage Act was broadly written to prohibit almost anything that could possibly be construed as interfering with national defense. This produced an unusual result: On one hand, parts of the law were criticized as being overly broad and in violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. In 1919, however, the US Supreme Court held in Schenck v. United States that the law did not automatically violate the First Amendment; its validity depended on the specific facts of the case at hand. On the other hand, the broad prohibitions and enthusiastic prosecutions on the part of the federal government helped fuel a widespread fear within the United States of socialist and communist influence, which became known as the Red Scare.

Section three, in particular, received heavy criticism, since it authorized punishment for vague “crimes,” such as attempts to obstruct military recruitment activity. This section was later repealed, but not until after the conviction and imprisonment of many prominent civic leaders for publishing leaflets, newsletters, and books, or making public speeches containing anti-war or anti-recruitment statements. This provision especially felt like a significant shift from the public sentiment of only a few months prior, when the United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, expressed determination to hold on to its neutral stance in the war.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Doenecke, Justus D. Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2011. Print.
  • “The Espionage Act and the Limitations of the First Amendment.” Open Websites. U of Texas at Austin, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.
  • “Harding Frees Debs and 23 Others Held for War Violations.” New York Times. New York Times, 24 Dec. 1921. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.
  • Holborn, Mark, and Hilary Roberts. The Great War: A Photographic Narrative. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
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