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Espionage Act

Espionage Act



What is the Espionage Act of 1917?

The Espionage Act of 1917 was passed by the United States Congress following America’s entry into the First World War. The Espionage Act prescribed fines of $10,000 and 20-year prison sentences for any individual who interfered with the recruiting of soldiers or the disclosure of sensitive information that dealt with the war effort. Additional penalties were attached if any individual refused to perform military duties. 

The Espionage Act of 1917 is a United States federal law that has been amended several times since it was originally passed on June 15th of 1917. In addition to the aforementioned regulations, the Espionage Act of 1917 originally barred any individual from interfering with military efforts or supporting enemies of the United States during times of war. The Espionage Act of 1917 was challenged in the Supreme Court Case Schenck v. United States, but was upheld because it did not violate the freedom of speech of convicted persons. Since this original challenge, the constitutionality of the law, the exact interpretation of the latent speech and its relationship to the first amendment have been contested in courts ever since.  

Background of the Espionage Act of 1917:

On April 2nd of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress seeking a formal declaration of war against Germany and its allies. Later that evening, Senator Charles Culberson of Texas and Representative Edwin Webb of North Carolina introduced bills in their respective houses to thwart acts of treason and espionage. 

Even prior to the United States’ entry into World War I, the Wilson administration sought legislation that would impede such undermining efforts. On June 15th of 1917, after fervent rounds of debate and some alteration, the United States Congress enacted these bills into the Espionage Act. 

The Espionage Act of 19178 deals with a wide range of wartime issues, including criminalizing various acts that are deemed debilitating to the war effort and regulations that restricted shipping practices. The majority of the Espionage Act of 1917 was undisputed; however, a series of provisions that affected an individual’s civil liberties were regarded as the source of contention.

Features of the Espionage Act of 1917:

The Espionage Act of 1917 made it a crime to partake in the following activities:

• An individual is not allowed to convey information with the intent to interfere with the success or operation of the United States’ armed forces. Individuals are also not allowed to promote the success of America’s enemies. Violation of these rules is punishable by death or imprisonment for at least 30 years. 

• An individual is not allowed to convey false reports or false statements with the direct or indirect intent to interfere with the operation of the naval forces or military of the United States. Individuals are also not allowed to promote the success of America’s enemies when the United States is engaged in an international conflict. Any attempts to cause or attempt to cause disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, insubordination in the military services or attempts to obstruct the recruiting of enlistment service of America is deemed illegal by the Espionage Act. Any individual convicted of these acts will face a maximum fine of $10,000 or imprisonment for no more than 20 years. 

• The Espionage act enabled the President of the United States to censor publication of materials that were deemed potentially useful to America’s enemies. This censorship provision was the source of great controversy; the press, numerous political leaders and the American public deemed the provision as an egregious violation of American civil liberties. This provision was ultimately removed by Congress from the Espionage Act. 

• The Espionage Act gives the Postmaster General the authority to refuse or impound mail publications that he determines as in violation of the said provisions

• The Espionage Act of 191 forbids the transfer of any naval ship equipped for combat to any foreign nation engaged in a conflict in which the United States remains neutral. 

Extension of the Espionage Act of 1917:

The Espionage Act was formally extended in May of 1918 through the passing of the Sedition Act. The Espionage and Sedition Act was a set of Amendments to the previous Espionage Act, which fundamentally barred many forms of communication (profane, abusive, disloyal speech) concerning the government, the flag, military forces of the United States, or any uniform connected to the American military. 

Because the Sedition Act was an extension and thus viewed as an informal name, court cases to contest the impediments to free speech were filed under the Espionage Act. In March of 1921, the Sedition Amendments were repealed; however, many provisions of the Espionage Act remained and were confided under U.S.C Title 18.

Features of the Sedition Act:

Due to constant urging on the part of the Attorney General, Congress enacted the Sedition act which formally amended the Espionage Act, on May 16th of 1918. The Espionage act added a number of prohibitions to the Espionage Act including any utterings or writings that mentioned or revolved around the following subjects:

• Any profane, scurrilous, disloyal or abusive language concerning the United States Government, its Constitution or its military forces were barred under the Sedition Act. Furthermore, any abusive or derogatory actions against the uniform of the Navy or Army of the United States or the Flag of the United States were prohibited. Language intended to bring scorn, contumely, contempt or disrepute to any of the above subjects were to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. 

• The Sedition Act also enhanced the postmaster general’s powers. 

Prosecutions under the Espionage and Sedition Acts:

During World War I not one American was convicted of spying or unpatriotic behavior under the Espionage Act. That being said, Federal prosecutors used the law to file over 2,000 cases and process roughly 1,000 convictions. Representatives of the political left were mostly targeted—the government prosecuted American socialists, including the party’s leader and presidential candidate, Eugene Debs. Prosecutors also targeted high-ranking officials of the militant left-wing Industrial Workers of the World group. 

The majority of the prosecutions filed under the Espionage and Sedition Act revolved around anti-war speeches that were largely directed at soldiers and conscripts. However, other speeches, which were typically delivered in innocuous fashion and with peaceful undertones, were also prosecuted under the Espionage and Sedition Act. 

How is the Espionage and Sedition Act Interpreted?

The majority of legal venues in the United States applied the Espionage and Sedition Acts in an expansive fashion. Judges routinely instruct juries that they may infer unlawful intent from the effects of the prosecuted party’s words. Those who preside over said cases will instruct juries that they can convict purely on the basis of the “bad tendency” of the convicted party’s language, whether or not the respective speech incited violence or exhibited bad effects. Due to these instructions, juries typically convicted. 

A handful of court systems (and their acting judges) construed the Espionage and Sedition Acts in a narrow manner. These interpretations were meant to reconcile the act’s provisions with the Constitution’s first amendment and its free-speech liberties. 

The Espionage and Sedition Acts are still implemented today. In 2005, Lawrence Franklin, a Pentagon Iran expert, was indicted under the act. Franklin ultimately plead guilty to conspiracy to disclose national defense materials to lobbyists and an official for the Israeli government. Franklin was sentenced to a maximum of 12 years in Federal prison (this sentence was later reduced to 10 months home confinement).