Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Criticize The Government (Or The War) And Go To Jail?

[Hat tip: Howard Bashman.]

This is an interesting story, especially in light of current times and all the criticism of the Iraq war in the mainstream media. An article in the Chicago Tribune today chronicles the efforts of a group of law students in Montana seeking clemency for people who were prosecuted during World War I for sedition for comments made criticizing either the government or the war.

Although (free) registration is required, the article is available for free on the Tribune's website. Here's an excerpt:


On April 23, 1918, with the U.S. in the depths of World War I, Fred Rodewald, a German immigrant homesteader who had settled with his family on 320 acres in eastern Montana, uttered a sentence that forever changed his life.

He suggested that Americans "would have hard times" if Germany's kaiser "didn't get over here and rule this country."

That remark earned him 2 years in prison for violating Montana's Sedition Act. When he went off to the penitentiary in Deer Lodge, the 42-year-old Rodewald left behind a pregnant wife and eight children. An armistice ended the war less than a month later.

Now, nearly 90 years later, law students at the University of Montana have begun a quest and are prowling dusty archives and musty courthouse storage rooms across the state to clear Rodewald and 73 other Montanans convicted of sedition.

The project provides a contrast between the waning days of World War I, when a farmer could be jailed for suggesting that it was "a rich man's war," and today, when citizens can criticize the war in Iraq without fear of prosecution, if not without fear of government surveillance.


This was apparently all sparked by the group of law students reading "Darkest Before Dawn", a book about Montana's sedition laws and their impact on free speech during World War I. A group of seven law students is now investigating the case and preparing clemency petitions to present to Montana's governor, in hopes of getting pardons for those convicted of speaking out against World War I. The governor has apparently also read the book and has suggested that he would be open to granting clemency to those convicted of the "crime."

Among the statements made by Montana citizens (mostly ranchers, loggers, farmers, and bartenders) which resulted in prosecution and imprisonment:

--one bartender was sent to prison for calling the American flag a "dirty rag" and saying that "this damned country is bankrupt already and do they expect to lick Germany? No, they never did and they never will."

--one man stated that "The heads of the government at the White House ought to be killed and then the war would stop."

--another man stated that "These damn fools still think they can lick Germany, but all they get is a good licking in France every day."

--another man stated that "I would sooner fight for the Kaiser than I would for the United States."

--another man stated that "Americans are no good, and I hope that Germany will win."

--another man stated that "Let those who own the country do the fighting! Put the wealthiest in the front ranks; the middle class next; follow these with judges, lawyers, preachers and politicians."

--one woman allegedly declared the Red Cross a "fake," and stated that "while she didn't mind helping the Belgians with the relief work, the trouble was that the damned soldiers would get it."

--one rancher was accused of speaking against the draft, saying that Germany would win the war, and that President Woodrow Wilson was "the crookedest son-of-a-bitch that ever sat in the president's chair." The rancher was not convicted, however, and the judge found that the law was "not intended to suppress criticism or denunciation . . . of the president ... but only false facts, willfully put forward as true."

I guess regardless of your political stance and opinions about either the current administration or the current war, at least it's comforting to know that we are free to criticize the administration and the war as we might see fit, without risk of being jailed simply for speaking our mind.

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