Posted by: L | May 14, 2007

The Espionage Act of 1917

From an article by Charles Adams, “The Land of the Not-So Free,” at Lew Rockwell:
“In 1917 five war protestors were handing out pamphlets on the streets of New York opposing US involvement in World War 1, and promoting Russian Revolutionary causes. They were arrested and charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a crime to oppose the war, that is –

“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…(the war, the flag, the military, the navy, enlistments, buying bonds, uniforms, etc,)…in contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute, or …intended to incite, provoke or encourage resistance to the United States, or to promote the cause of the enemy shall be punished by…a $10,000 fine or imprisonment up to 20 years.”

It is a lengthy statute, covering everything imaginable, none of which amount to spying. It gives us a new definition of espionage that hasn’t yet found its way into dictionaries.

In the case of Abrams vs. United States, the protesters were give 20 years prison sentences. It was appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the convictions by a 7 to 2 decision. They had published a pamphlet with offensive words like,

“We the toilers of America, who believe in real liberty, shall pledge ourselves, in case the United States will participate in that bloody conspiracy against Russia to create so great a disturbance that the Autocrats of America shall be compelled to keep their armies at home and not be able to spare any for Russia…If they will use arms against the Russian people to enforce their standard of order, so will we use arms…”

The seven Justices who upheld the convictions rambled on about irrelevant matters like the defendants were Russian immigrants in the US from 5 to 10 years, never being naturalized. They were against the war and any action against the Russian revolution. They advocated a general strike against munitions factories so they could not produce bullets to be used against German and Russian revolutionaries. If the armies of America were kept busy at home they could not be used abroad, wrote the pamphlet. The Court said, A technical distinction may perhaps be taken between disloyal and abusive language…But it is not necessary to a decision of this case to consider whether such a distinction is vital or merely formal for the language of these circulars was obviously intended to provoke and encourage resistance to the United States in times of war…And the defendants, in terms, plainly urged and advocated a general strike of workers in ammunition factories for the purpose of curtailing production of ordinances and munitions necessary and essential to the prosecution of the war.

The dissent by Oliver Wendell Holmes with Brandeis has now become the majority decision with Holmes writing one of his greatly admired comments, that “the defendants had as much right to publish as the Government has to publish the Constitution of the United States.” I imagine the 7 Justices found Holmes remarks enraging. Holmes was known for his brilliant and pithy comments and this was one of his most remarkable. He then went on to state that unless there was an imminent and immediate danger, you can say anything no matter how loathsome and fraught with danger it may be. In time this became the rule in the United States and the resisters of the Viet Nam war can thank….”

My Comment:

This is a piece of history we ought to keep incessantly in our minds, especially with the so-called Hate Crimes Bill on the table and much talk of reviving the Fairness Doctrine.

Does the left really think that hushing Limbaugh and Co. on talk radio is going to redound to its benefit? Will it? Keep hammering on the idea that some speech is “hate speech” and we’ll soon have no speech.

Yelling fire in a crowded theater may be a bad idea a lot of the time, but not if the theater is on fire.

And for different reasons, a lot of people of all sorts of political persuasions have begun to think they hear the crackling of flames.


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