Swept along by hysterical fears of treacherous German spies and domestic labor violence, the Montana legislature passes a Sedition Law that severely restricts freedom of speech and assembly. Three months later, Congress adopted a federal Sedition Act modeled on the Montana law.
The roots of the Montana Sedition Law lay with the hyper-patriotic sentiments inspired by World War I and growing fears of labor unrest and violence in the state. A sizeable number of Montanans had resisted American entry in WWI, and the Montana congresswoman Jeanette Rankin (the first women elected to Congress) had voted against U.S. involvement in the Great War. Once the U.S. did become involved, though, many pro-war Montanans viewed any further criticism of the war effort as treasonous-especially if it came from the state’s sizeable German-American population.
At the same time, the perceived need for wartime unity sharpened many Montanans’ distrust of radical labor groups like the socialist International Workers of the World (IWW). The Montana mining town of Butte had been rocked by labor violence in recent years. In 1914, a group of men who may have been IWW members destroyed the offices of an opposing union with dynamite. An IWW leader named Frank Little had also recently given speeches in Butte condemning American involvement in the war, claiming it was being fought for big business interests.
Determined to silence both antiwar and radical union voices, the Montana legislature approved a Sedition Law that made it illegal to criticize the federal government or the armed forces during time of war. Even disparaging remarks about the American flag could be grounds for prosecution and imprisonment. Through the efforts of Montana’s two senators, the act also became the model for the federal Sedition Law of May 1918. Like the Montana law, the federal act made it a crime to speak or write anything critical of the American war effort.
Later widely viewed as the most sweeping violation of civil liberties in modern American history, the federal Sedition Law led to the arrests of 1,500 American citizens. Crimes included denouncing the draft, criticizing the Red Cross, and complaining about wartime taxes. The Montana law led to the conviction and imprisonment of 47 people, some with prison terms of 20 years or more. Most were pardoned when the war ended and cooler heads prevailed, but the state and federal Sedition Laws proved highly effective in destroying the IWW and other radical labor groups that had long attacked the federal government as the tool of big business. Since many of these radicals were vocal opponents of much of the government wartime policy, they bore the brunt of the Sedition Law rebukes, and suffered sorely as a result.