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Abrams v. United States

Espionage Act Of 1917

The Espionage Act of 1917 outlawed making false statements, in speech or writing, for the purpose of causing insubordination, or for suppressing or obstructing recruitment of men into the U.S. military at times of war. The act prohibited an individual or group from using the mail for transmitting materials containing statements outlawed under the act. Postmasters could refuse to distribute such materials.

Congress passed the Espionage Act at the beginning of World War I when national fervor and patriotism were at an unparalleled level. Fears, fueled by the success of the Bolshevick Revolution in Russia, precipitated intolerance for anarchists, foreigners, and pacifists. Any criticism of the government was viewed as criticism of the U.S. war effort and a threat to national security.

Historically, the act was linked with a much stronger law passed the following year, the Sedition Act of 1918. The Sedition Act imposed heavy fines and prison terms for persons speaking or writing anything critical of the government or its symbols such as the flag, the military uniform, or the Constitution. Although a vast majority of Americans supported both laws, some groups and individuals strenuously objected to them on grounds they blatantly disregarded the First Amendment's free speech guarantee.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Abrams v. United States - Significance, In Uncharted Territory, Creating The Surveillance State, Anarchists And War, Trial And Appeal