Chelsea Manning was charged with violating the Espionage Act in 2013.
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journal article / power

How The Espionage Act Became a Tool of Repression

This isn’t all history, of course. The Espionage Act is still on the books: Chelsea Manning was charged under it in 2011.
The Espionage Act of 1917 marked the beginning of the “one of the most repressive periods in American history.” During World War I, more than 2,000 dissenters were prosecuted under the Act for “allegedly disloyal, seditious or incendiary speech.” This may have surprised the members of Congress who had passed what became the first federal legislation against seditious expression in 120 years.

Geoffrey R. Stone points out that the legislators did not intend the law to have the “severely repressive effect attributed to it by the federal courts.” The Act became a judicial assault on free speech and the First Amendment, powered in part by what a Department of Justice official later called a popular rush for “indiscriminate prosecution” of dissenters and the “wholesale repression and restraint of public opinion.”

As Stone details it, the act was substantially revised during contentious and divisive Congressional debate. Ultimately, it was toned down from the original wording provided by the Justice Department. Originally a wide-ranging brief for press censorship and against anarchists, it ended up “a carefully considered enactment designed to deal with very specific military concerns.” Woodrow Wilson was extremely disappointed with the result.

Yet, as one senator declared: “I have not found any two Senators who agree upon what [the Act] means.” Most federal judges, however, seemed to assume that the punishments meted out under it should be severe.
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