The Sedition Act of 1918 was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917 passed by Congress at the urging of Democrat President Woodrow Wilson, who was concerned that any antiwar speech and organizing to oppose the draft and the war effort constituted a real threat to an American victory.
The Sedition Act forbade Americans to use "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the United States government, flag, or armed forces during war. The act also allowed the Postmaster General to deny mail delivery to dissenters of government policy during wartime.
The Espionage Act made it a crime to help wartime enemies of the United States, but the Sedition Act made it a crime to utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States' form of government.
Socialist Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison under this law for trying to impede the draft. Disloyal activists including members of the Industrial Workers of the World union were also imprisoned during World War I for their anti-war dissent under the provisions of the Sedition Act. Anti-war protesters were arrested by the hundreds as speaking out against the draft and the war was illegal under this law.
The Sedition Act was repealed in 1920 when the war was over.
Upheld by Supreme Court
The Supreme Court unanimously held the law did not violate the First Amendment. It held that words which ordinarily would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances a to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent.
- Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements, or say or do anything except by way of bona fide and not disloyal advice to an investor or investors, with intent to obstruct the sale by the United States of bonds or other securities of the United States or the making of loans by or to the United States, and whoever when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause, or incite or attempt to incite, insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct or attempt to obstruct the recruiting or enlistment services of the United States, and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute, or shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States, or to promote the cause of its enemies, or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully by utterance, writing, printing, publication, or language spoken, urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things, product or products, necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war in which the United States may be engaged, with intent by such curtailment to cripple or hinder the United States in the prosecution of war, and whoever shall willfully advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated, and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or the imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both...."
- Schenck v. United States (1919) 249 U.S. 47;online text