Case Studies: Civil Liberties in World War I

 

The Espionage Act, passed in 1917, made it a crime to obstruct military recruitment and it authorized the Postmaster General to deny mailing privileges to any material he considered treasonous or harmful to the war effort.

 

The Sedition Act, passed in 1918, made it illegal to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” about the government, the Constitution, the flag, the armed forces or even the “uniform of the Army or Navy.”

 

Considering the two above mentioned Acts, decide whether or not the defendants in the cases below are “guilty” or “not guilty.” Your job is not to interpret the law in terms of its constitutionality, but to apply it to the cases in question. Be prepared to explain your group’s decision. If “guilty,” determine a sentence and/or a fine.

                                                                                         

Case #1: The American Revolution Movie

 

A Hollywood movie producer issued a film, The Spirit of 76, which portrayed some scenes in which British soldiers committed some atrocities.Claiming that the film questioned the faith of our ally, Great Britain, the prosecution argued that the war effort demanded total Allied support.

 

Guilty or Not Guilty?               

 

 

Sentence/Fine:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                         

Case #2: The Anti-Draft Circulars

 

An American Socialist, feeling that American involvement in World War I was an attempt to bolster the capitalist system, mailed circulars to men eligible for the draft, stating that being conscripted against one’s will was unconstitutional and should be resisted.The prosecution argued that this interfered with the government’s right to raise an army in time of war.

 

Guilty or Not Guilty?               

 

Sentence/Fine:

 

 


                                                                                         

Case #3: The Leaflets Dropped From a Window

 

Several men, concerned about America’s involvement in the unfolding Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, dropped some leaflets from a window to pedestrians below.The leaflets urged that American workers go on strike to protest America’s involvement in another nation’s civil war.The prosecution argued that while the leaflets made no statement about the U.S.’s role in World War or its allies, a strike might hamper war production and thus their actions were illegal.

 

 

Guilty or Not Guilty?               

 

 

Sentence/Fine:

 

                                                                                                           

Case #4: The Anti-Draft Speech

 

 

An American Socialist leader stood on a street corner in Cincinnati, Ohio and told a crowd of passers-by that the draft was wrong, that the European War was not America’s fight, and that the U.S. should withdraw its troops immediately.The prosecution contended that these words were inflammatory and could hinder the recruitment of soldiers by the Selective Service Administration.

 

 

Guilty or Not Guilty?                      

 

 

Sentence/Fine:

 

 

 

 


Civil Liberty Case Results

 

Case #1: The American Revolution Movie

 

U.S. v. Spirit of ’76. The producer was fined $10,000 and given a 10-year prison sentence (later commuted to three years).

 

Note: The judge supported the jury’s decision stating that the film might cause Americans "to question the good faith of our ally, Great Britain."

 

Case #2: The Anti-Draft Circulars

Schenck v. U.S.A 10-year sentence upheld by the Supreme Court, which established the “clear and present danger” doctrine for the boundaries of permissible speech.

 

Note: ''The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.'' Justice Holmes

 

Case #3: The Leaflets Dropped From a Window

 

Abrams v. U.S.A 20-year sentence upheld by the Supreme Court .Abrams was later released from prison on the condition that he emigrate to the Soviet Union.

 

Note: Majority Reasoning: Based on Schenk, this speech is clearly prohibitable. Even though their primary purpose was pro-Russian, it had an anti-American effect by urging strikes.

 

Dissent Reasoning: [Holmes] Abrams did not intend to interfere with the war against Germany. There was not clear and present danger present because the leaflet was silly and posed no immediate danger to the U.S. government. Free speech is necessary because it is the "marketplace of ideas" that generates what the truth really is. The suppression of free speech should only be permitted when necessary to immediately save the country.

 

Case #4: The Anti-Draft Speech

U.S. v. Debs 10-year sentence commuted by President Harding in 1921.

 

Note: Debs told his listeners: "Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder.... And that is war, in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles." The judge who sentenced Debs said "who would strike the sword from the hand of this nation while she is engaged in defending herself against a foreign and brutal power."

 

In court, Debs refused to call any witnesses, declaring: "I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone." Before sentencing, Debs spoke to judge and jury, "While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

 

Justice Holmes, speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court, upheld the verdict, on the ground that Debs's speech was intended to obstruct military recruiting. When the war was over, Pres. Wilson rejected the Attorney General's recommendation that Debs be released, even though he was sixty-five and in poor health. Debs was in prison for thirty-two months. Finally, in 1921, the Republican Warren Harding ordered him freed.