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Interpreting the Evidence

American Defense Society Letter Regarding Seditious Publications

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Era:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Comprehension

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Communication
    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:

    Written Document

  • Regions:

    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load American Defense Society Letter, December 4, 1917 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
This is a letter from the American Defense Society questioning the loyalties of certain printed publications, December 4, 1917.

Historical Context
In 1917, the United States government passed the Espionage Act to prosecute those who tried to evade the draft. In 1918, an amendment to the Espionage Act, know as the Sedition Act, outlawed making false statements that conflicted with the war effort; using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” regarding the United States government, Constitution, flag, or military; discourage the production of war-related materials; or the support, teaching or defense of any of the above-mentioned acts. Anyone who violated the law would face a fine, jail time, or a combination of both these punishments. Civil libertarians objected to these laws because they felt that the freedom of speech was being violated. However, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the laws. 
Under this law, 900 individuals were convicted and another 249 immigrants were deported without a trial. The law was designed to suppress the ideas of anarchists, socialists, pacifists, and others who disagreed with the U.S. on governmental and foreign policy issues. The Sedition Act was also used to restrict the printing of certain articles and magazines during World War I. If government officials determined that the ideology of a particular publication was disloyal or held the potential to be disloyal, every attempt was made to keep those publications out of the hands of everyday American citizens. Needless to say, many Americans believed their First Amendment rights were being violated by this law. 

Essential Question
How do governments seek to control information in a free society?

Check for Understanding
How does the author of this letter feel about the censorship of seditious publications?

Historical Challenges
Research the Patriot Act of 2001. Compare this law past during the war on terror to the Espionage and Sedition Act passed during World War I. How are the two laws similar and how are they different?

Interdisciplinary Connections
English Language Arts: Write a letter to your current congressman or senator requesting that certain steps be taken to protect the environment. Develop three or four of you own ideas and suggest those ideas in your letter.

Art: Create your own logo and slogan to place on your letterhead for your letter about protecting the environment.