Saturday, May 6, 2017

The First Casualty of War

Censorback Saturday today notes the centennial of the Espionage Act of 1917. The House passed President Wilson's bill on May 4, 1917, and the Senate followed suit on May 14. It would be challenged in court, and ultimately was upheld in a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in Schenk v. United States in 1919. It has become the foundation of every law seeking to limit freedom of the press ever since.
"The Light That Must Not Fail" by Harry Murphy for Chicago Examiner, May 5, 1917
On its face, most of the law would only be in effect during wartime. The Espionage Act made it a crime to convey information with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies; to promote the success of its enemies when the United States is at war; to cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States; or to willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States.  The Act also gave the Postmaster General authority to impound publications that he determined to be in violation of the Act.
"That Wooden One" by Nelson Harding in Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 5, 1917
A number of publishers and cartoonists recognized the threat posed to a free press. William Hearst published an almost daily torrent of editorials — some of them taking up an entire page — such as this excerpt:
President Wilson, who has been right in so many things of late, is singularly wrong in his advocacy of this bill to suppress free speech and free publication.
He says that he can be trusted not to misuse the extraordinary powers which this bill confers. Possibly he can be so trusted, but why should any American President desire to see the provisions of the American Constitution violated in order to secure despotic powers which are essentially unAmerican as well as unconstitutional?
"Transplanting the Czar" by Oscar Cesare in New York Evening Post, May 4, 1917
Why should an American President, even though he might be as great as any American President we have ever had, desire to set an example in autocracy, and create a precedent which would surely be abused by some less able or less loyal chief executive elected at some future period?
100 years later, we have a permanent state of war, and a congenital liar as our greatly less able, less loyal chief executive who openly advocates punishment for anyone in the media who dares to contradict him (and a Justice Department that has prosecuted and convicted a woman for laughing at the Attorney General)... but I digress.

"All Ready to Fight of Liberty" by Boardman Robinson in The Masses, June, 1917
The socialist monthly The Masses likewise warned against the proposed censorship rules, and with good reason. The magazine would be prosecuted and put out of business for its antiwar articles and even an Art Young cartoon. (In case it's difficult to see on your screen, Uncle Sam is handcuffed by "censorship" in Boardman Robinson's cartoon above.)
The Masses is throwing all its weight against militarism and nationalistic prejudice. It is attempting to minimize the effect on public opinion of a press dominated by military expediency and patriotic emotionalism. It is trying to think clearly and tell the truth without patriotic hatred and without patriotic sentimentality.
Ours is a difficult task.
"The Prisoner" by George Bellows in The Masses, July, 1917; earlier in The Blast.
Others, however, were perfectly willing to grant the government whatever power it might wish to have to lock up any perceived threat to the nation. Suspicion of hyphenated-Americans was not about to go away any time soon.
"Jail Them" by Sidney Greene in New York Evening Telegram, May 4, 1917
By the way, I see that Mark Green, Trump's second nominee for Secretary of the Army and the subject of the cartoon I posted here on Thursday, withdrew his name from consideration on Friday. I guess I don't know my own strength.

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