Espionage Act of 1917

The Espionage Act of 1917 is a United States federal law passed on June 15, 1917, shortly after the U.S. entry into World War I. It has been amended numerous times over the years. It was originally found in Title 50 of the U.S. Code (War & National Defense) but is now found under Title 18 (Crime & Criminal Procedure). Specifically, it is 18 U.S.C. ch. 37 (18 U.S.C. § 792 et seq.)

Espionage Act of 1917
Long titleAn Act to punish acts of interference with the foreign relations, and the foreign commerce of the United States, to punish espionage, and better to enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and for other purposes.
Enacted bythe 65th United States Congress
EffectiveJune 15, 1917
Public lawPub.L. 65–24
Statutes at Large40 Stat. 217
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the House as H.R. 291
  • Passed the House on May 4, 1917 (261–109)
  • Passed the Senate on May 14, 1917 (80–8)
  • Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on June 15, 1917
United States Supreme Court cases
Schenck v. United States, Debs v. United States

It was intended to prohibit interference with military operations or recruitment, to prevent insubordination in the military, and to prevent the support of United States enemies during wartime. In 1919, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled through Schenck v. United States that the act did not violate the freedom of speech of those convicted under its provisions. The constitutionality of the law, its relationship to free speech, and the meaning of its language have been contested in court ever since.

Among those charged with offenses under the Act are German-American socialist congressman and newspaper editor Victor L. Berger, labor leader and five-time Socialist Party of America candidate, Eugene V. Debs, anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, former Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society president Joseph Franklin Rutherford, communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Cablegate whistleblower Chelsea Manning, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Defense Intelligence Agency employee Henry Kyle Frese, and National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden. Rutherford's conviction was overturned on appeal.[1] Although the most controversial sections of the Act, a set of amendments commonly called the Sedition Act of 1918, were repealed on December 13, 1920, the original Espionage Act was left intact.[2]