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Espionage Act Affects Free Press, Suffragists

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Aug 09, 2017

The summer of 1917 can be remembered as one of the darkest pages in the history of American civil liberties. It began when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act on June 15, part of which read, “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 … shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both.”

Within days, female pickets at the White House demanding the vote were being arrested. Two anarchists, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, were sentenced to two years in prison for speaking out in opposition to the draft. There were other portions of the act that would prove even more alarming.

“Every letter, writing, circular, postal card, picture, print, engraving, photograph, newspaper, pamphlet, book, or other publication, matter of thing, of any kind, containing any matter advocating or urging treason, insurrection, or forcibly urging treason, insurrection, or forcible resistance to any law of the United States, is hereby declared to be non-mailable.

“Whoever shall use or attempt to use the mails or Postal Service of the United States for the transmission of any matter declared by this title to be non-mailable, shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.” Banning a publication from the U.S. mail in 1917 would be like keeping it off the internet today.

It didn’t take long for the government to act. The Trenton Times of July 7 reported, “The mails have been barred to numerous publications opposed to the war since the espionage act was approved June 15, it was learned today.

“The latest stop order was issued yesterday against the Appeal to Reason, Socialist weekly of Girard, Kansas.

“Almost daily since June 15, according to an official of the department today, some anti-war, Socialist or Pacifist publication has been barred for alleged ‘treasonable statements.’”

According to the United Press, “The Postoffice Department admitted it has no legal right to suppress the publications permanently, but it is within its right in seizing and examining certain issues and preventing their distribution.”

The editor of the Appeal told his story.

“The first indication we received that there was any trouble over our issue of June 30th was when we were deluged with complaints from subscribers at Savannah, Ga., stating that they had failed to get the APPEAL. After investigation we discovered that the postmaster at Savannah had held up the papers pending a decision from Washington where he had lodged a complaint against their contents. We immediately wired the solicitor of the postoffice department.”

From Washington came the reply.

“Postmaster at Savannah acted within his authority in holding your papers and submitting them to the Postoffice Department for instructions. Your issue of June 30 last is held by the Department to be nonmailable under the Espionage Act.”

The editor’s conclusion: “It is a pretty sad state of affairs that permits the limitation of the freedom of the press by the Washington postoffice authorities. It is still a worse state of affairs when every postmaster and letter carrier in the United States can under this Espionage act delay the delivery of printed matter which to him may appear as being illegal.”

The rules seemed unclear at best. The Washington Herald of July 10 explained, “The August number of the Masses, the New York radical magazine, has been suppressed, by being denied the right to the mails. Postmaster General Burleson told Merrill Rogers, business manager of the publication yesterday, that the ‘general tenor’ of the magazine is objectionable.”

The same day the Herald carried a local story reporting that “Fred M. Bock, examiner of stations at the post office, has learned to his sorrow that it does not pay to sing parodies praising the prowess of the Kaiser, even if it is done in a spirit of levity.

“Following investigation of a charge of disloyalty against him, Bock, who has been an employee of the city postoffice for twenty-six years, was dismissed yesterday.

“The accusation against Bock was that he sang a parody on ‘Tipperary’ while on an excursion with other postoffice employees. … A woman employee made the complaint which the postoffice inspectors investigated. Bock said that he meant no harm, and to prove his loyalty to Uncle Sam stated that he had two sons in the United States army.”

George Creel, chairman of the Committee on Public Information, stated publicly on July 22, “I am as firmly the friend of a free press as any man, and would fight for a free press. But publications which are trying to break down the government are clearly treasonable, and I believe in enforcing the law against them. I could not for one moment undertake to defend a publication that was violating the law.”

While most newspapers were silent on the issue, William Fisher, the editor of Toms River’s New Jersey Courier, ran an editorial on July 27: “We see how the constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech is abrogated, when men are sent to jail for criticizing the President, or for saying that the draft law is wrong in principle and undemocratic, and unworthy (of) a free people. We see how the free press is violated, when the post office department refuses to allow the use of mails to some dozen papers that have dared criticize the President, the war and the draft. We see the right of petition – that ancient right, going back to the days of the autocratic king – and guaranteed by the first amendment to the Constitution overthrown, when women are sent to jail for standing in front of the White House in order to catch the President’s eye with their petition for suffrage.”

Fisher made it clear.

“If Mrs. Hopkins and the other women suffragists can be sent to the workhouse for annoying the President with their petitions, why cannot anybody who wants a law changed and asks for the change, be jailed for annoying the powers that be?

“If the war is to wipe out the free press and destroy free speech in this country, then democracy is at an end; then the outcome of the war will be the creation of the wealthy and their allied military and naval caste into a powerful group of rulers, while the workers and toilers will be but slaves, subject in every way to the will of the ruling caste. If these rights are to be taken from us, the war will end for us in shame and sorrow and slavery.”

On August 9, 1917, The New York Times ran an article stating the government’s response to any criticism.

“An official of the United States Government who is now engaged in an investigation of certain anti-American and pro-German pamphlets and weekly newspapers printed in this part of the country, said yesterday that one result of the investigation has been to prove to him that not only are the persons identified with this propaganda laboring in the interests of the enemies of the United States, but that in a majority of cases they are also working to bring about in the United States such a condition of affairs as the so called Soldiers’ and Workmen’s Council sought to bring about in Russia. Within the past few weeks some of these publications have assumed a pro-German attitude even more violent than before the United States declared war on Germany.

“For weeks past the Post office and Department of Justice inspection services have been keeping a close watch on the circulation of these anti-American publications, so far as the mail is concerned, and among the possibilities of the near future is the suppression of at least some of the more violent of these papers and pamphlets.”

This threat would hang over the press and people like the sword of Damocles. Today we are told World War I was a popular effort to make “the world safe for democracy.” That was an easy point for Creel and his committee to sell because if you didn’t agree, there was always a cell waiting with your name on it.

Next Week: The Doughboys arrive.


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