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First Amendment Rights During Wartime

First Amendment Rights During Wartime

The tendency of the government to restrict First Amendment rights during wartime first became prominent during the Civil War.Both the Union and Confederacy specifically sought to limit what the press reported as far as war events and strategies, lest the enemy receive any useful information that could cripple the respective sides' war efforts. Since the Confederacy lost the war and ceased to exist upon its conclusion, it's more noteworthy to examine the instances of restriction practice by President Lincoln's Union government.

The Union and First Amendment Rights

The Union government wanted to do more than merely stop reports that would provide the enemy with valuable intelligence; it wanted to categorically suppress any criticism of Union war policy.To accomplish this, the Union military and government leadership, for all practical purposes, seized control of the press.One of the principle First Amendment rights had just been snatched from the people and withheld merely because it was wartime.In 1862, the Union War Department issued an order that allowed military control of all telegraph lines. The order stipulated that any publication or dissemination of "unauthorized information" would lead to a future ban on receiving information and the ability to use the railroads to distribute its newspaper. Furthermore, the government actually prosecuted publishers and editors who printed information deemed to be "unauthorized", and even suspended operations of the New York World and the New York Journal American for three days.

Wartime and Reporting Rights

This willingness to restrict and control First Amendment rights set the stage for further government interference in the 20th century, as in the following:

  • Woodrow Wilson, while able to win election in 1916 largely due to his ability to keep the United States out of World War I, finally decided to enter the war in 1917.To muster the support of the American People, his administration engaged in a tremendous propaganda campaign that promoted almost zealous patriotism and extreme hatred of anything anti-German.
  • Swept up in this nationalist sentiment, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917.The Espionage Act included an exhaustive list of vaguely defined anti-war activities that if convicted of, could have resulted in punishment of up to $10,000 and 20 years in prison. The government targeted specific groups, such as communists and socialists.Over 1,500 people were arrested under this act, and the Supreme Court passed by its first opportunity to protect First Amendment rights in Schenck v. United States.

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