100 Years Under the Espionage Act

Exposure, Legislation

Yesterday marked 100 years since the Espionage Act was passed on June 15, 1917. This law was created amid the widespread xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment that shrouded World War I. Its purpose was to tackle draft evasion and anti-state activity that was seen as subversive to American democracy. The law was upheld in 1919 in Schenck v. United States, in which it was ruled that mailing anti-draft letters is not protected by the First Amendment. This was upheld again in Debs v. United States (1919), after which Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist Party leader, protested involvement in WWI during a speech and was found guilty of violating the act. The Espionage Act resurfaced in the 40s and 50s during the Red Scare, in which it was used to suppress communist and left-wing influences. Most recently, the Espionage Act has been applied to leaking confidential government information and used to prosecute whistleblowers including Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. The Justice Department is now looking into prosecuting entities that disseminate documents, such as WikiLeaks or journalistic organizations, in addition to individuals who leak classified information, under the act. Supporting this development, CIA Director Mike Pompeo recently described WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” which is not protected by the First Amendment.

Source: EFF

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