President Woodrow Wilson, the academic politician, in response to the propaganda machine orbiting around WW1 said he could, “imagine no greater disservice to the country than to establish a system of censorship that would deny to the people . . . their indisputable right to criticize their own public officials.” Yet, within his administration, as with most of his policies and actions, a less publicly embraced measure to censor the public was signed into law. This law is called the Sedition Act and, even thought it was repealed in 1940, it still has significant ramifications today.
The Sedition Act allowed for the government to censor any information that may be of consequence for the US’s national security. Any information that may be disseminated to enemies of the state in “times of emergency” would be acts of treason. As a by-product of this law, the 1st amendment is forever jeopardized.
The early 1900’s, as the most devastating war the world had ever seen ensued in Europe, a majority of the American public, presided over by Woodrow Wilson, desired to remain neutral in the conflict. Due to the fact that the US citizens shared equal allegiances to both sides of the war, it was nearly an impossible feat to mobilize the American public.
Being that the global finances had shifted from banks in London to New York, the president had an interest in perpetuating the war as to bolster the US’s standing as a world power. Over the timeline of the war, the US began to show more and more signs that it’d side with allies—posed as a response to German u-boat attacks on boats containing US citizens, but more realistically because of financial allegiances.
As a way to incite the public’s interest in the war, the US government and its propaganda machine employed an age old tactic of misogynistic and nationalistic pride. Bating the pride of the American people helped garner the support for joining the Allies.
This, of course, did not sway a large portion of the public—specifically, the large volume of German immigrants. So, as a further measure to quell the opposition, he signed into the Sedition Act. With a sentence of up to twenty years, citizens were forbidden to speak of the US government, flag, or troops using "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language.”
Thankfully, the act was repealed in the 1930’s but shortly after the Smith Act was signed in the 1940’s. This act as an alteration of the Sedition Act has consequence today. Formally announced as a way to defeat conspiracies conducted by German, Communist, and Russian spies; in modern times it has adopted the role of suppressing any information that may render the government vulnerable.
The Smith Act is only relevant in times of war. Otherwise, the First Amendment can be fulfilled to its fullest measure. Yet, within the last several years the US has been under a continuous state of war. Thus, any form of radical expression that could compromise the US’s national security can be persecuted.
While, this doesn’t seem like shocking news to some, this knowledge should be applied to the scrutinization of sources of information and media representations available to the general public in modern times. If the First Amendment can only be engaged to a point, then it must be questioned if it actually can exist at all. It makes one question whether the truth can ever be expressed without compromising national security.
Perhaps, in this post-modern era we are only allowed to speak freely what the government and its security branches wishes us to speak. And, even more, most of us will never be allowed to decide what is not true, because the sources of that information can never be accessed or suggested. Perhaps, everything we hear that is possibly against the government, is in actuality aligned with the narrative the government wishes us to inhabit.
Yet, who knows? Perhaps the unbridled gateway of information accessed by private, nationless and anonymous individuals have finally found a way to overcome national suppression. Or, maybe, as the mainstream media enjoys saying these days, we will continue to be manipulated by “fake news.”