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5/18/16

Freedom of Speech: When Criticizing the U.S. Government Put You in Prison - by Rosa Inocencio Smith

Ninety-eight years ago today, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it an imprisonable offense to criticize the federal government or U.S. military involvement in World War I. The legislation, which expanded the Espionage Act of 1917, came at the height of wartime fear and anger:

Violence on the part of local groups of citizens, sometimes mobs or vigilantes, persuaded some lawmakers that the [original] law was inadequate. In their view the country was witnessing instances of public disorder that represented the public’s own attempt to punish unpopular speech in light of the government’s inability to do so. Amendments to enhance the government’s authority under the Espionage Act would prevent mobs from doing what the government could not.

It was in this political climate that James Harvey Robinson, in the December 1917 issue of The Atlantic, addressed “The Threatened Eclipse of Free Speech”—a foreshadowing of the Sedition Act. Robinson argued that in times of national hardship, dissent is not only natural but necessary:

Read more: When Criticizing the U.S. Government Put You in Prison - The Atlantic

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