Photo credit Library of Congress
By Stephen Dockery
On February 22, 1918, Montana’s sedition act—which criminalized speaking out against the government and its international activities in World War I—became law. Responding to a surge of anti-German and patriotic fervor, the law severely limited speech and assembly rights in the state. The Montana statute would be used as a blueprint for the federal Sedition Act of 1918 which likewise prohibited criticism of the country, its armed forces, and its flag.
The Montana law was used to convict 79 people between 1918 and 1919. The convicted were mostly rural blue-collar workers, many of whom had immigrated to the country from Germany or Austria. Montana residents convicted for minor criticisms of American policy received an average of 19 months in prison and many were fined up to $20,000, about $354,000 in today’s dollars.
Those convicted under the law were pardoned in 2006 by then-Governor Brian Schweitzer. “I’m going to say what Gov. Sam Stewart should have said: I’m sorry, forgive me and God bless America, because we can criticize our government,” Schweitzer told The New York Times. The sedition law is a stark reminder of the way paroxysms of nationalist fervor, often stoked by international conflict, can lead to gross domestic encroachment on civil liberties.