The Facts

Who were these people?

Most of the 79 persons convicted of sedition under Montana law worked at menial, blue-collar or rural jobs. Half were farmers, ranchers or laborers. Others worked as butchers, carpenters, cooks, teamsters, bartenders and saloon swampers. More than half of the men sent to prison were born in Europe, many in Germany or Austria. Only three trials involved the printed word–those of Butte Daily Bulletin editor Will Dunn and publisher Bruce Smith, and one involving charges in Beaverhead County against a pamphleteer for the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor organization.

Probably the most dangerous place to open one’s mouth was Custer County in southeast Montana. A total of 13 persons were tried for sedition in Miles City, the county seat; ten were convicted. Neighboring Rosebud County was four for four. In Helena, seat of Lewis and Clark County (and the state capital), 11 men were tried for sedition and 10 were convicted.

The average age of those sent to prison for sedition was 45. The oldest was 74 and the youngest was 29. Collectively, the prisoners ended up serving more than 65 years in prison, an average of 19 months apiece. Nineteen men received fines of up to $20,000, about $275,000 in 2006 dollars.Eleven convictions were appealed; seven were reversed by the state supreme court, but not on free speech grounds. No one in Montana was convicted under a similar federal sedition law based on the state’s law, although more than 30 persons were arrested.In all, close to 200 persons in Montana were arrested during the World War I period on state or federal sedition or related charges, such as criminal syndicalism and flag desecration. There is probably no way to count the numbers of Montanans questioned, harassed or scrutinized by local defense committees probing for “disloyal” thought in the community, but they doubtless numbered in the hundreds.

What they (allegedly) said

Virtually all sedition convictions in Montana were based on witness accounts of casual statements, often in saloons, that were perceived as pro-German or anti-American. Strong or vulgar language figured in many cases and may well have contributed to convictions and sentences.

Statements that questioned the chastity of women or the morality of the nation’s soldiers were similarly shocking in World War I Montana. A Rosebud County farmer got 8 to 16 years for making the curious remark that, “These free taxi rides given to the soldiers at Miles City were just for the purpose of getting them into private houses, so that they may have intercourse with women (meaning the wives, sisters and daughters of the citizens of Miles City) and get war babies.”

Those who criticized or cast doubt on the soundness of Liberty bonds and other means of supporting the war effort such as savings stamps and food rationing risked prison terms. A wine and brandy salesman visiting Red Lodge received a 7 1/2 to 20-year sentence for saying that the wartime food regulations were a “joke.” Even a statement such as “we have no business being there,” repeated countless times in a nation only reluctantly drawn into a war on another continent, led to a number of convictions.

What is sedition?

Sedition is the illegal promotion of resistance against the government, usually in speech or writing. What is illegal depends on the government and its regard for freedom of speech. The crime of sedition is alive and actively prosecuted in many countries today. In the United States, sedition as a crime has been enforced at several points in its history, notably during the presidency of John Adams under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, during and after World War I, and under a 1940 federal law, the Smith Act, criminalizing membership in the Communist Party. When the U.S. Supreme Court first addressed the question of the constitutionality of sedition laws after World War I, the majority used what was then the traditional standard for judging “seditious” speech–whether it had a tendency, even a remote tendency–to stir people to resistance or rebellion against the government. Later, however, justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis began to develop a more expansive notion that would give more breathing room to political dissent. One of the most stirring writings in American law in defense of free speech is the opinion by Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927. Holmes’ and Brandeis’ theory did not prevail in their lifetimes. In 1964, in New York Times v. Sullivan, a majority of the the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that punishment for sedition was contrary to the First Amendment, And in 1969, in the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the high court set forth the current standard for punishing seditious speech. A person cannot be criminally punished for urging the use of force or for urging that laws be broken “except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite…such actions.” In other words, mere words, unless intended to immediately provoke lawless action, and likely to do so, cannot be punished by the state. Had such a standard been in effect in 1918, no sedition law would have been enacted.

What was the Montana sedition law?

The law, enacted in a special session of the state legislature in February 1918, criminalized just about anything negative said or written about the government or its conduct of the war. Stiff criminal penalties–a maximum of 10 to 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine–conveyed the seriousness of the crime. The pertinent language read:
“Whenever the United States shall be engaged in war, any person or persons who shall utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous, slurring or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the constitution of the United States, or the soldiers or sailors of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the army or navy of the United States or shall utter, print, write or publish any language calculated to incite or inflame resistance to any duly constituted Federal or State authority in connection with the prosecution of the War shall be guilty of sedition.”

Was Montana’s law unique?

Other states also enacted sedition laws in the same period. In 1917, just after the United States entered the war against Germany, Congress passed the Espionage Act. This law, despite its name, was enforced as a sedition law, punishing hundreds of people for voicing their opinions about the government and the war. In 1918, Congress passed a more specific sedition law, which was almost a word-for-word copy of the Montana law.

What conditions led to Montana’s sedition law?

The political and economic establishment, led by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, saw a mounting threat by political dissidents, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, and sought laws to destroy them. The IWW had been active in promoting strikes against leading industries, such as copper mining, logging and agriculture to increase wages being eaten away by inflation and to improve execrable working conditions. At the same time, wartime frenzy overtook the state. Even in a state as remote as Montana, most people believed American democracy to be threatened by German threats of world domination. Fear and hatred overcame common sense. Extreme laws were passed. German residents, in particular, bore the brunt of such passions. German books were banned and burned. Even preaching in German from the pulpit was banned, a law that was cruelly enforced even after the armistice was declared.

Could we ever see such laws again?

Yes–if we cave in to fear and hysteria. The terrorist murders of nearly 3,000 persons in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, provoked fear, hatred, anxiety and another round of laws designed to enhance our security. Unfortunately, some of those laws, such as certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, have been enacted at the expense of our civil liberties. We do have a much more robust history of First Amendment protection to fall back on than did Americans just after World War I. We have many fine court opinions in both federal and state courts upholding our constitutional rights of free speech, laws that back up some of those decisions, and we have decision-makers and government leaders who, for the most part, have a healthy respect for our Bill of Rights. However, more violent, terrorist acts against Americans, especially if they occur on American soil, will put more pressure on our civil liberties and give fear and hysteria a bigger grip on our national psyche. Politicians often do what is expedient. Citizens often accede to unwise laws, and it is not until much later, after many innocent persons have been punished, that there is a reaction that the pendulum has swung too far. The story of Montana’s sedition prisoners is a cautionary tale about the terrible injustices that happened within the memory of our oldest living generation–and about what we might yet endure.

How can I still help?

The 79 persons convicted of sedition in Montana in 1918 and 1919 were neither rich nor famous. Most occupied the more basic levels of society. Some were transient. Their traces have faded. Who were these people? What were their lives like before they were caught in the sedition net? What happened to them afterwards? If you are in a position to do some research on one or more of these people, we’d love to have your help.