In remembrance of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, and in recognition of the Americans who strive to uphold the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, including Federal employees, the Congress enacted a law on December 8, 2004, that requires educational institutions receiving Federal funding to hold an educational program for their students pertaining to the United States Constitution on September 17 of each year, except when it falls on a weekend. Congress also designated September 17 as “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” commemorating the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Additionally, Federal agencies are required to provide information about the Constitution to their employees to commemorate that day.
ED will commemorate the day this year with a special program at headquarters in Washington, DC, on September 18. All employees are invited, and the program will be streamed on EDStream. This year’s Constitution Day program will feature historians who will discuss issues related to the First Amendment during World War I. Our speakers are: Edward Lengel, Historian for The White House Historical Association, and Tony Williams, a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. Julie Silverbrook, Executive Director of The Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource) will serve as moderator. Phil Rosenfelt, Deputy General Counsel for Program Services at ED, will introduce the speakers and provide observations on the relationship of constitutional issues in World War I and their relevance to the constitutional issues of today.
When planning each year’s program, we look to history and current and recent events for themes. This year marks the Centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I (WWI). The topics addressed at the time of WWI have great relevance today.
The appropriate role of the Federal government and the curtailment of personal liberties such as freedom of speech were issues in WWI that stand out. During the war, Congress passed legislation limiting speech and instituted a draft to raise an army to fight the war.
Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. These Congressional actions made it illegal to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States.” These laws made certain types of protest, for example, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 or up to 20 years in prison.
In fact, more than 2,000 people were indicted under these laws during the war. The laws were challenged in the courts, including the United States Supreme Court, and courts generally upheld the restrictions as appropriate during wartime. So, free speech and our basic freedoms were very much topics in WWI.
The second WWI-related issue was forced conscription. The draft led many to oppose the war. In fact, a major Supreme Court case, Shenk v. United States, was decided that combined free speech and opposition to the draft. The Supreme Court said:
A conspiracy to circulate among men called and accepted for military service under the Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, a circular tending to influence them to obstruct the draft, with the intent to effect that result, and followed by the sending of such circulars, is within the power of Congress to punish, and is punishable under the Espionage Act, § 4, although unsuccessful.
In addition, on August 2, 1917, Oklahoma tenant farmers opposed to WWI and conscription revolted in what became known as the Green Corn Rebellion. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society:
The men planned to march to Washington and end the war, surviving on the way by eating barbecued beef and roasted green corn, the latter giving the rebellion its name. The rebels began burning bridges and cutting telegraph lines on August 3, but they soon faced hastily organized posses, which halted the revolt. Three men died in the conflict, and more than four hundred others were arrested. Of those, 150 were convicted and received federal prison terms of up to ten years.
Freedom of speech and the press and the right to peaceably assemble, all guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, were important rights and issues then, and continue to be important now. The discussion of the Constitution issues during World War I will give new insight into the issues of today.
Anthony Fowler is Interagency Liaison at the U.S. Department of Education.