May 8, 2006
On May 3, the Montana governor posthumously pardoned 78 people who were convicted of “sedition,” that is, criticizing government policies, in 1918.
Twenty-seven states had passed sedition laws during World War I. Montana’s version, which made it a crime to say anything “disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous or abusive” about the government, became the template for a federal law Congress passed later in 1918.
Authorities in Montana didn’t waste any time using this law against people. Seventy-nine people were convicted; 41 of them got prison sentences ranging between 1 and 20 years. One man, for example, was sentenced to 7 to 20 years in prison for saying that the government’s wartime food regulations were a “big joke.”
Most of the victims were of German descent, which authorities used to accuse them of “siding with the enemy.” In fact, historian Clemens P. Work, whose book about the sedition law paved the way for the pardons, points out that the Montana law was influenced by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which saw the law as a way to deal with “labor unrest.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, mine workers throughout the Western states organized strikes and protests against the low wages and deplorable conditions in the mines. Many times, troops were sent to crush the strikes, resulting in many deaths among workers and their families. We don’t know how many of those charged with sedition in Montana were organizers in this movement. But we do know that many of them were workers. And we also know that, during World War I, state and federal governments used the sedition laws to jail many leaders and organizers of the Western Federation of Miners as well as the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World).
Issuing the pardons, the Montana governor said: “God bless America, because we can criticize our government.” Yeah, right. Eighty-eight years later – after people were sent to prison for no reason, their farmland was confiscated and not returned, their children were sent to orphanages and put up for adoption, when their descendants still suffer the consequences of this grave injustice!
No one should believe things are any different today. Today’s sedition law is called the Patriot Act, which the government uses to lock up immigrants of Middle-Eastern descent without any evidence of terrorist activity. And no one should believe that the government can’t and won’t find ways to use similar repressive laws already on the books against any worker who tries to organize against the bosses’ ongoing drive to cut jobs, wages and benefits.
This leopard sitting in Washington, D.C. hasn’t ever changed its spots.