This day in history, May 16, 1918, the United States Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918 in an effort protect America’s participation in World War I.
The legislation extended the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a crime for any person to convey information intended to interfere with the U.S. Armed Forces’ pursuit of the war effort or to support the country’s enemies during wartime.
The act forbade the use of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” about the United States government, the U.S. Military or the flag.
Harsh penalties of five to twenty years in prison were generally imposed on people who violated the act. These penalties were the same as the ones imposed for acts of espionage during the previous legislation.
The most famous of those sentenced for violating the Sedition Act was Eugene V. Debs, the founder of the International Workers of the World who ran for president in 1900 as a Social Democrat and in 1904, 1908 and 1912 on the Socialist Party of America ticket. In June 1918, Debs made an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio. As a result, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Debs’ sentence was commuted in 1921 when the Sedition Act was repealed by Congress. However, many portions of the Espionage Act are still part of U.S. law.