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To what extent is it acceptable to limit a citizens civil liberties during wartime?

While the US was at war with the Triple Alliance many citizens opposed the war. The government felt that opposition to government policies in time of war threatened our national security. Restrictive laws such as the Espionage and Sedition Acts were passed in order to silence opposition. Many outspoken people were jailed. It was a time of great national crisis and the Constitution was thoroughly tested.

The question becomes, when is it acceptable to limit ones rights. It is accepted that as a member of any society we give up certain rights. Going back to political philosopher John Locke we remember that he said that only in the "natural state" are men totally free. This total freedom, or lack of all rules, however, creates according to Locke certain "inconveniences." What are these inconveniences? Well for one if there was no government peoples freedom would be limited by those stronger individuals attempting to exploit power and strength for their own benefit. This is the inevitable result of anarchy, only the strongest survive. Therefore the ultimate extension of the natural state not only leads to limitation of rights but potentially the limitation of life, the ultimate right. In order to avoid this men join together to form what Locke referred to as "the civil body politic" or government. Government is "instituted among men deriving its just power form the consent of the governed," the people. Thus we contract to leave the natural state and thus we give up certain rights in order to live in a civil society.

Democracy exists as a form of government dedicated to preserving as many of man's freedoms as possible. It is natural, however, for their to be disagreement among men as to what rights even a government may remove an still adhere to the aforementioned social contract. These arguments are particularly poignant in a Democratic society that allows dissent (in a dictatorship all opposition is of course silenced.). While the U.S. Bill of Rights would seek to protect these rights and make it clear what the government can and cannot do there has also been dispute here.

As stated earlier during World War I (and other times but that has been covered before and will be covered again) the United States government attempted to silence opposition to the war and thus restrict the rights of citizens. The government claimed these restrictions were necessary in order to protect the good of our society. Where they right? That question was for the United States Supreme Court to answer.

I. Restrictions on Civil Liberties During World War I

A. What were the Espionage and Sedition Acts? (1917)

1. Persons who commit the following acts may be fined up to $10,000 and/or jailed for up to 20 years:

a. willfully cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny or refusal of duty in the military forces . (Espionage Act)

b. prohibited disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive remarks about the form of government, flag or uniform of the United States. It even prohibited the opposition to the purchase of war bonds. (not investment advice!) (Sedition Act)

B. What was the result of the Espionage Acts during World War I?

1. Over 6,000 arrests.

2. Led to the Red Scare.

3. Walter Mathey, arrested and convicted, attended antiwar conference and contributed 25 cents.

4. Rev. Clarence Waldron, arrested and convicted for telling a bible study class the "Christians could take no part in the war." 15 year term.

5. Eugene V. Debs, arrested and convicted for opposing the war, 10 years. Gained over a million votes in a run for President while he was in prison.

6. Ricardo Flores Magon, a leading Mexican-American Labor organizer was sentenced to 20 years for opposing the administrations Mexcio policy.

7. Herbert S. Bigelow, a pacifist minister, was dragged from the stage where he about to give a speech, taken to a wooded area by a mob, bound and gagged and whipped.

8. Charles Schenck, member of the Socialist Party, sentenced to 15 years for publishing pamphlets urging citizens to refuse to participate in the draft. He called the draft slavery, among other things.

C. How were the Espionage and Sedition Acts challenged?

(Schenck v The United States)

1. Charles Schenck was arrested for violating the Espionage Act, passed by Congress in 1914. The Espionage Act made it illegal to defame the government or do anything that might retard the war effort. Schenck, a member of the Socialist Party, opposed the war and printed and distributed pamphlets urging citizens to oppose the draft which he likened to slavery. Schenck claimed his first amendment rights were violated.

2. The court ruled against Schenck saying that the Espionage Act did not violate the first amendment and that in times of war the government may place reasonable limitations on freedom of speech. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes outlined the courts opinion by explaining that when a "clear and present danger" existed such as shouting fire in a crowded theater, freedom of speech may be limited.

The attorney general of the United States speaking of opponents of government policies said, "May God have mercy on them for they need expect none from an outraged people and an avenging government." As as for Wilson, he of the religious upbringing, he who was a progressive leader, he who urged America into war to "make the world safe for democracy?" It was at his urging the laws were passed in the first place."

Were the Espionage and Sedition Acts a violation of civil liberties? Was the Supreme Court wrong? Perhaps. We must recognize that rights are indeed and must be limited. The question will always be, to what extent.


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