Freedom of Speech and World War I

Essay by aberombieCollege, UndergraduateA, October 2014

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Sheena Taylor

Modern America, 1914-1945

University of Texas at San Antonio

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution has often been regarded as the most important amendment of the document; "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."1 While the freedoms of this amendment have been contended as absolute, the federal government has quite often disagreed, limiting the spreading of dissension in government actions; especially in times of war. World War I transformed the personal guarantees and freedoms of American citizens by redefining the role of government in debates of constitutional speech and freedom of the press.2 Resistance to the war effort was met with federal legislation such as the Espionage Act of 1917; which criminalized anti-war speech.3

Though America's involvement was profoundly unpopular with a large sections of the population, there was still a sense of civic duty amongst many Americans in a "culture of obligation."

Duty, sacrifice, and obligation were terms used greatly during America's first world war. A sense of political duty energized Americans and spread patriotic fervor throughout society, while simultaneously creating a divide. Pacifists, conscientious objectors, socialists, and civil libertarians were on the other end; speaking out against the increasing restrictions of bureaucratic authority. These objectors were deemed "unpatriotic" and "cowardly" for their anti-war rhetoric, much like Jane Addams, a

prominent national figure; who insisted "Opposition to the war is not necessarily

cowardice."4 President Woodrow Wilson showed his disdain for pacifists, stating "what I am opposed to is not the feeling of the pacifists, but their stupidity. My...